Monday, June 29, 2009

Financial complexities... 3

The third factor that I want to introduce here is that of “self-referential” systems. Now this is something that is very easy to illustrate. It happens to anyone who uses complex or extensive spreadsheets. All of a sudden things come to a grinding halt with the succinct little message that you have created a “circular reference”; a formula is dependant apon a formula that depends upon… the answer of the formula it is trying to calculate. Now spreadsheets can not continue as long as that circular reference exists. It can not work round it. It stays stopped until the circle is broken.

But the truly complex system, such as the financial system that Watts is discussing, can depend upon such circular, self-referential, relationships. Note, please, this differs from feedback. It is the system itself changing and modifying as its complexity increases. The development of the whole derivatives market was impossible 100 years ago except in very small markets. It is the increasing speed and complexity of global communication (another factor that Watts refers to but does not develop) that has allowed the derivative products market to reach the importance and the instability that has led to the current crisis.

So, that is how close Watts got himself to third, to a three base hit. He was within a fingernail of success.

The homer in this is in a quite different direction. It comes from a tv programme, a news excerpt I think that led to a “re-enacted instance” involving the purchase of a car.

Essentially, when you are choosing between two or more alternatives there is a limit to the amount of relevant information the brain can use to make the decision. There are any number of systems and research ideas into how that limit can be overcome; ranging from processes to determine the most important factors in the choice to ranking each alternative between chosen factors.

That limit, given that no “artificial aids” are used, cuts in at four factors and removes any reasoned decision at six factors. So, in the car example a person provided with the full technical specs of two cars will revert to “four door wagon manual and I like the look” or “I prefer Toyota” rather than a reasoned analysis of make and model, engine capacity, safety, fuel consumption, drivetrain, wheel/tire size, acceleration, and all of the other information provided.

So, in making an investment decision it is far more likely that the investor will look at a small range of data, will close the paper, and run with what his brain tells him “feels right”. Even given full information, it is likely that the decision will not be fully rational.

This is being borne out time after time in the past two years by people who have invested in Finance Houses at the sharp (high-risk) end of the market with the same confidence as they might invest their money in a bank at less than half the offered return. “Safe as houses!”

And they were wrong. And so were their Financial Advisers. And so were the salesmen of the products being offered. And it goes on down the line as has been proven by so many in the past two years including Watt.

But no one has asked the question “Why were they wrong?” There are many who were looking no further forward than the next commission check, to be sure! There were many who just believed, without question, what they had been told. A large number would have been taken in by (what I know as) “The Brightest Men in the Room Syndrome” (TBMRS).

Even TBMR would have been operating close to the “six level” – choosing out of those six the factors that best suited their sale and which (they thought) were the strongest reasons.

It is important to note here that this leaves out intentional dishonesty. We are talking of the mythical “reasonable man” here and not the snake-oil charlatan (of which, incidentally there seems to have been far too many). But that is how TBMRS works as Enron proved.

To return to the point, Watts is correct in that the complex system is at fault. For any of the reasons he has given, and for the few others I have run through here. As he concludes –
Government regulators telling firms they can't grow or innovate sounds like dangerous meddling in free markets. But there are at least three reasons to think that it is reasonable.

First, there is already a precedent for precisely this kind of government intervention - namely anti-trust law, which effectively guards against firms growing so large that they stifle competition. Perhaps what we need is an "anti-systemic risk" law that would aim to avert systemic risk before it is too late. No doubt firms that are denied the right to grow under this law would complain; but firms complain about anti-trust rules as well, and somehow our free market system has survived, in part because the beneficiaries of anti-trust rulings are often smaller and more innovative.

Second, the current crisis has demonstrated that markets do not automatically regulate systemic risk any more than they automatically guarantee competition. Pragmatically speaking, therefore, government intervention is required to prevent markets from destroying themselves, and the relevant question is what kind of intervention is effective: preventive management, or after-the-fact rescue.

Third, and most fundamentally, there is something badly wrong with the kind of free market that ends up at the mercy of a single firm. Failing to deal with systemic risk, in other words, creates a world that is not only uncertain, but also unjust, in that individual firms can generate immense profits by taking risks that everyone else ends up bearing as well. Taking free-market principles seriously, therefore, requires us to acknowledge that firms that are "too big to fail" are really too big to be permitted to exist.

And, I regret, that is a silly gism based upon at least two delusions. (Don’t you just LOVE Dodgson?).

Watts’ first conclusion is right, there is precedent for governmental intervention in markets.

His second is really the question he set out to answer, though I suspect that he and many others will have forgotten that. Further, it is in the nature of markets to develop in a manner that makes choice and determination more rather than less difficult. I give credit that he speaks of the markets “destroying themselves”.
The third is just wrong. Until the point is reached where one firm has total control of a market, there has to be equilibrium. That point of stability requires the composition of the market to act as individuals. Lehman was not in that position. Not one of the players within the international market was “too big to fail”. The system would have continued without Lehman had they (or any other individual component) been left to die.

To blame the downfall of the global financial system on one firm, such as Lehman, as he and so many others have done is nothing short of simplistic nonsense. Watts had the right line – the complexity of the system – and failed to follow it through. It was not one firm, nor was it one product such as loan derivatives or short selling.

The “culprit” is a system that has become so large and so complex that nobody can say that they “understand” or can “predict” its total operation and outcomes. The internal relationships are such that even small changes in one factor can lead to large swings in seeming totally unrelated outputs.

Because of that complexity, fault-finding and remedies are reduced to the same level as mediaeval medicine, “Take this and if it doesn’t kill you it might cure you. At best it will have no effect”.

Essentially, what Watts (what? Only three wots? That’s not very bright!) should be arguing is that the global financial system got to the point where:
• It is self-sustaining and self-replicating.
• Self-referential and circular functions had become undetectable and unmeasurable.
• Responses of the system to external stimuli were becoming increasingly chaotic as a result.

Then it is not a case of individual companies being “too big to fail”. That is a political crock, reasoned to justify governmental intervention of a particular kind and for equally political purposes. At the political level, that kind of intervention can be justified provided that the rationale is honest – it is for political reasons that A is too big to fail. The cause of the failure might well be unforeseen circumstances arising from the global financial system. That is accepted. That is not the reason for the intervention; that is political, whoever does it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Trust in the Top

That is the headline over an op-ed in today's Sunday Star Times by Chris Cherry, "a UK academic and writer living here..." and his "warning concerning the liabilities of trusting politicians.

He bases his article on the (now quiescent) volcano of the British MP Expenses raruraru, warning that "it could never happen in NZ" is a very short-sighted excuse for accepting the word of any politician.

The regretful part is, that in the probligo's part of the world he is preaching not to the converted but the cynical voter who trusts no one standing for elected office.

If he needs this explained at all, Cherry should take as just a small example the National government's reshaping of the Education vote.

On 28 May, the Herald published what was obviously a rehash of a Ministerial (I almost typed "Menstrual" - Freudian that is) post-Budget press release from Anne Tolley -
Cash-strapped, the Government has pushed most of its new investment in education toward increasing brain power, rather than bricks and mortar capital expenditure.

Education Minister Anne Tolley said the Government was "strengthening the ladder of opportunity" by allocating $1.68 billion to improve front-line education over four years in today's budget.

The budget outlined $1.337b in new operational education spending over the next five years, more than four times the $340m in new capital spending.

Now don't that sound grand!
Among items "reprioritised":

* $54m, reducing the funding subsidy for hobby courses in adult community education;

* $20m, combining the Team Up and Te Mana information campaigns;

* $18m, reducing Education Ministry support function expenditure;

* $275m, keeping early childhood education adult-child ratios at current levels, rather than proceeding with a planned reduction;

* $55m, reductions in tertiary funding.

Labour could not fund these "even in the best economic times", Mrs Tolley said.

Education projects attracting Government money included:

* $80.1m more for day-to-day school operations;

* $36m to support literacy and numeracy;

* $16m to fight truancy;

* $34m to improve access of schools to high speed broadband;

* $59m to improve the education of disruptive students, and those with special needs and behavioral issues;

* $69.7m for improving access to early childhood education (ECE), by expanding 20 hours ECE to playcentres and kohanga reo, and removing the six-hour daily limit;

* $19.9m to extend the Te Kotahitanga programme, to focus on raising Maori students' achievement.

That is the broad outlay.

I want to tackle the first of those "re-prioritised" items, the "hobby courses in adult community education".

The Herald did too, on 29 May, with this -
Independent schools will receive their first Government funding injection in a decade the $35 million allowing them to keep their fees at a more affordable level for parents.

Executive director of the Independent Schools of New Zealand Deborah James said she was delighted with the announcement as private schools had been struggling with a "crippling capped funding regime for the past 10 years".

She felt it was important the Government had acknowledged that if it did not help them out, a number of private schools might have been forced to integrate, which would have ultimately lapped up a portion of state funding that could otherwise be diverted towards public schools.

"[Independent schools] bring a choice in education, not all schools suit all children so it's wonderful in a democracy that families can choose an education that best suits the needs of their child," Mrs James said.

Tony Sissons, headmaster of King's School, said the funding would greatly assist the school's parents as it would allow him to keep cost increases at a minimum.

"Independent schools bring the opportunity for choice and by maintaining fees at a lower rate it gives more people the opportunity for choice around the country," Mr Sissons said.

Now, we jump forward to Jun 7 -
Private schools are hiring debt collectors to chase unpaid fees as the recession bites.

Baycorp general manager Joe Nel said his agency had about 300 private and state schools on its books, slightly up on last year, with an average of $650 a debt.

Graeme Byers, managing director of Guardian Credit Service, is chasing about $40,000 worth of debt for 15 private schools on his books.

The debts range from a few hundred dollars for sports fees to $8000 for unpaid tuition fees.

Byers said the debtors were mainly "pretty honest people who have got themselves into problems".

But some are harder to find. "The people have gone over to Australia - they've actually skipped the country."

Lynda Reid, principal of St Cuthbert's College in Epsom, Auckland, said referring unpaid fees to debt collectors was "an absolute last resort."

"When we have exhausted every option, yes we do, like every other business, have to bring in a debt collector. We do it very reluctantly."

Ok, so some of the private schools' clients are not paying?
Reid said the school [St Cuthbert's] took the step only when parents had ended contact and ignored the school's requests to discuss the problem. In rare cases girls were asked to leave the school.

However, Reid said the school [still St Cuthbert's] introduced automatic payments as an option last year to ease the pressure of paying fees all at once. Fees at the school range from $13,408 to $15,900 a year.

I guess (fairly safely) that only those who can really afford to send their kids to a private school like St Cuth's (and that has a very high reputation) would commit themselves to a cost like that.

Let's jump forward now to Jun 20 - a month after the first of these articles appeared -
Like a covert network, adults converge on empty classrooms to extend themselves in all sorts of ways. When the kids roll in the next day, there's no trace of what's taken place.

They were at it at Mt Roskill Grammar and hundreds of other secondary schools this cold Wednesday night: learning Thai cuisine, dressmaking, car maintenance, touch typing, English as a second language, Mandarin Chinese and the art of texting.

The Government spin is that the rest of us are victims of some rort: "Taxpayers should not be funding hobby and recreational courses like twilight golf, radio singalong, pet homeopathy, Moroccan cooking and concrete mosaics," says Education Minister Anne Tolley.

Even night school co-ordinators concede that many courses are more social in nature than stepping stones to a job or a pay rise.

And so the Budget announcement slashing funding for school-based night classes by 80 per cent - from $16 million to $3.2 million - failed initially to spark community revolt. "All sectors of the economy are affected by the economic situation and tertiary education is no exception," Tolley told the adult and community education sector group, ACE Aotearoa.

Obviously, Tolley would not have added "and the poor rich buggers who send their daughters to St Cuth's".
That's the thing about night school. It caters for the spectrum of interests from the self-indulgence of children's party planning and Spanish classes to vocational courses such as accounting and touch typing. Even at mosaics, jewellery and floral art classes, the career-minded mingle with the purists.

Yes, an indulgence indeed.


I return to the opening, the Curry article. He has missed the boat. It left about 25 or 30 years ago. Politicians in NZ are no different to those in UK, or Australia, Or the US. They have only one motive, and I don't need to spell it out once again.

Go back, check the numbers...

"Hobby" classes, reduction $54 million

Private schools subsidy, increase $35 million.

Trust politicians?


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Financial complexities... 2

The point here is that the output from the systems that Watts is discussing is comparatively, deceptively, simple. It is intended to be so that users – the people who invest money in the system – can understand the levels of risk impinging their investment and the value their investments have earned. It is the Persian carpet that is hung on the wall. It is an agglomeration of pretty colours and an apparently organised pattern. Understanding the detail that lies behind it, the seed values, the process, is beyond the understanding of any person.

The output is prepared from the accumulation of detail into increasingly generalised categories,

- by people who “understand” what they are calculating,

- but can not necessarily grasp the enormity of the detail and risk that they are given as inputs

- by people who individually work to prepare summarised number descriptions of the detailed data for which they are responsible. (Whew!!)

No one can describe the output from these systems as “wrong”. They are not. They are a logical and systematic accumulation of the financial data of the business. They do not “fail” as a result of the incorrect process or interpretation of individual transactions, or even an individual category of transaction.

The difficulty, and Watts has touched this, is placing that output into the world-view of the larger system of many similar reports and how they might interact.

The delusion is, therefore, that an objective investor has little chance of accurately assessing either the “value” of his return, nor the level of risk that he is investing against.

Again, simplicity can be surprisingly complex.

The intent here is to introduce the principle of feedback. In the system proposed by Watt, there are innumerable feedback points. Again that is a point on which he has touched, primarily from the aspect of governmental review and control of the system.

If feedback is introduced to the system at the wrong point, or in the wrong fashion, then the resulting consequences will not be as planned or intended. That, in Watt’s example, is just what is happening.

That is the major line of criticism aimed at virtually every governmental attempt to minimise the (national, economic, political, individual, business... take your pick)impacts of the collapse of the global financial system.

The third factor that I want to introduce here is that of “self-referential” systems. Now this is something that is very easy to illustrate. It happens at least once to anyone who uses complex or extensive spreadsheets. (My favourite at work has over 65,000 formulas, some of them nested to three or four levels). All of a sudden things come to a grinding halt with the succinct little message that you have created a “circular reference”; the current formula is dependant apon a formula that depends upon… the answer of the formula it is trying to calculate. Now spreadsheets can not continue as long as that circular reference exists. It can not work round it. It stays stopped until the circle is broken.

But the truly complex system, such as the financial systems that Watts is discussing, can depend upon such circular, self-referential, relationships. Note, please, this differs from feedback. It includes the system itself changing and modifying as its complexity increases.

Those changes might internally created (evolved) to cope with or provide new opportunities. The development of the whole derivatives market was impossible 100 years ago except in very small markets. It is the increasing speed and complexity of global communication (another factor that Watts refers to but does not develop) that has allowed the derivative products market to reach the importance and the instability that has led to the current crisis.

They might also be imposed from without - environmental pressures requiring adaptations. The biggest and most obvious are government controls. The difficulty here is that if the control, the environmental influence is against the direction the systems is wanting to adapt then the result is a series of work-arounds, further evolutions which accept and ameliorate the impact of the changed environment.

So, that is how close Watts got himself to third, to a three base hit. He was within a fingernail of success.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Financial complexities... 1

ust occasionally my old mates at Arts and Letters turn out a truly thought-provoking link – such as this from Boston Globe with Duncan Watts suggesting that systems ( he uses as examples the power grid crises in 1996 in Oregon and 2003 in the Northeast states) can become over-complex for which he suggests the term “systemic risk”.
Over the past year we have experienced something similar in the financial system: a dramatic and unpredictable cascade of events that has produced the economic equivalent of a global blackout. As governments struggle to fix the crisis, experts have weighed in on the causes of the meltdown, from excess leverage, to lax oversight, to the way executives are paid.
Although these explanations can help account for how individual banks, insurers, and so on got themselves into trouble, they gloss over a larger question: how these institutions collectively managed to put trillions of dollars at risk without being detected. Ultimately, therefore, they fail to address the all-important issue of what can be done to avoid a repeat disaster.
Answering these questions properly requires us to grapple with what is called "systemic risk." Much like the power grid, the financial system is a series of complex, interlocking contingencies. And in such a system, the biggest risk of all - that the system as a whole might fail - is not related in any simple way to the risk profiles of its individual parts. Like a downed tree, the failure of one part of the system can trigger an unpredictable cascade that can propagate throughout the entire system.

There is no need to retrace the whole of his article though I do intend to return to his conclusions.

Overall, he has covered the bases fairly well, provided that you are happy with a two-base hit. The idea he has used is a propos and makes for an interesting read.

The “Out” call at third though comes because he has missed an extremely important factor; one which does not in any way contradict what he has said but in fact is an augmentation of the prim misses he has started with.

It starts with the “complex system”. Now I, and anyone else with half a brain knows what Watts is talking about here; essentially a system which has a large number of inter-related and inter-acting nodes, where many of the relationships and interactions are not clear or well defined.

Being an old-time computer-wallah, and I mean OLD, “systems” has a flavour to it which turns my brain to parallels from that kind of world. So, with your patience I will indulge.

“Complex” systems can be extremely simple. The complexity can come from a number of different factors.

The most critical of these must be the system “Output”. Many moons back I taught myself to write Q-Basic, a language used by a number of accounting systems as well as the general home-writer. One of the programs I wrote with it used a model from Scientific American. It was two fairly simple formulas of two factors and a geometric (if I remember rightly “atan”) function. By taking the “answers” to the first calculation and feeding those back to the formula it was possible to print to the screen (in colour eventually) a veritable Persian carpet. Given the same two seed values, the result was always the same – the same carpet was generated. By choosing a different pair of seed values though you could arrive at a totally different carpet, or nothing at all.

Now that original model came out of the first days of “chaos calculation” and re-iterative functions. Who remembers Mandelbrot, and fractals these days other than Wikipedia? It was used to illustrate that a reiterative function could, in time, bring results that varied hugely from the initial calculations and even from the immediately prior calculations.

The point here is that the output from the systems that Watts is discussing is comparatively, deceptively, simple. It is intended to be so that users – the people who invest money in the system – can understand the levels of risk impinging their investment and the value their investments have earned. It is the Persian carpet that is hung on the wall. It is an agglomeration of pretty colours and an apparently organised pattern. Understanding the detail that lies behind it, the seed values, the process, is beyond the understanding of any person. The output is prepared from the accumulation of detail into increasingly generalised categories, by people who “understand” what they are calculating, but can not necessarily grasp the enormity of the detail and risk that they are given as inputs by people who individually work to prepare summarised number descriptions of the detailed data for which they are responsible.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wonder 2

TF has written quite a treatise in response to my thoughts on “Wonder”. I appreciate the effort he has put into it. This response is not intended as a criticism of him, or his beliefs, but as an expansion of my own (comparatively half-baked) ideas. The other thing to understand, TF and any others reading here, is that I use “god” (small ‘g’) to indicate any venerated supernatural (including the anti-heros), and if I intend the Christian “god” then out of respect alone I must use “God”. Clear? No disrespect intended.

His opening paragraph really has the conundrum in a nutshell –
My understanding of God… I base my belief in God…
For my part there are two very different thoughts there.

I have just received an email (serendipity at work here) from a co-worker. It contains a .ppt of artworks by Otavio Ocampo; of whom I have never before heard. It is a propos because the pictures (and I have to admit they are very well done) illustrate (pun intended) the difference that I see between “understanding” and “belief”. It is difficult to explain, but one (chosen because it is the least controversial in this context) is a painting of a partial profile of a young lady’s face. As the picture is enlarged, it becomes obvious that the features are in fact small (swallow-like) birds, similar in appearance to the Disney “Bluebird” theme. So, one bird becomes eyebrow and eye, others become the septum and nostrils, lips and so on. As I said, well done and very clever.

But it is the illusion created that is the connection. What appears to be one thing at a distance, on a small scale, becomes another as you get closer. The connection between belief and understanding is like that.

The difference between what you have said, TF, and my view is really quite simple.

In order to “understand” your world, you have to “believe”.

My world requires no “understanding”. It “is”. Nothing more, nothing less.

I “understand” my world to the extent that there is nothing that I have observed (in 62 years) that requires anything more than an (known and proven) objective explanation. That is to say that I do not follow anything like the “deus ex machina” explanations of natural phenomena, including “the creation” of this universe. I put “the creation” in quotes there because in part it is the heart of the debate. Is this a “great glorious coincidence”, or was it “created” for totally unfathomable reasons by some unfathomable super-being. Perhaps it is no more than the plaything of a bored child. One of our local tv funding agencies Te Mangai Paho ( the valve at the end of the funding pipe from government to maori tv programme makers) has a very clever avatar. It starts with a “picture” of the earth and zooms out to the galaxy and ends with a small girl holding that galaxy between her hands. You may correctly deduce that I have never seen UFOs, ghosts, spirits (other than the bottled kind), Leprechauns, demons, angels, or any of the other supernatural beings some people seem to have infesting their universes.

The Bhuddists have it differently; “All is illusion”. Sort that idea out, they tell us, and you will get closer to “enlightenment”; whatever that might entail. As I see it, enlightenment is (somewhat cynically) no more than another “illusion”. That does not imply any form of nihilism. Far from it. It is the tat tvam asi (that art thou, thou art that) of the Upanishad. My meager understanding is that the illusion is of “separateness”, “non-unity”, rather than the non-existence of reality. Expressed more definitely, we are part of reality and that reality is part of us. To try and separate the two creates the illusion. (That is behind my statement that I was “close” to Bhuddism).

One can look to a similar dichotomy in the idea of “the principle of revelation” – all will be revealed as and when god determines the time is right. In the absence of “proof”, inspiration becomes similar to “the creation”. Is there a god leading the mind? Or is inspiration the result of taking a different viewpoint and the ability to recognise what and how the picture has been changed? I return at that point to the illusions portrayed by Ocampo, or Escher. There is no proof that revelation or inspiration is the intervention of God, any more than there is proof that it is not. That Newton “realised” the effects of gravity is undisputed. Was the idea his or God’s? Unprovable.

As an aside, in none of the biographies I have read of Ernest, Lord Rutherford has there been any mention made of his religion. Rather than try to argue he was an atheist – an assumption both facile and unwarranted – let us just assume that he was just too busy to be bothered with formal “worship”. Why would God chose a humble son of a farmer in NZ to reveal the secrets of atomic structure (specifically the relationship between nucleus and electrons) when there were far more “deserving” candidates such as Cavendish.

And that leads to another aspect.

If “inspiration” is the consequence of supernatural intervention, then an incorrect inspiration – let’s use the geocentric universe as an example seeing that it was referred to by TF – is the consequence of what? An intentional diversion of mankind from the truth? Human error? Or the intervention of another (anti-hero) supernatural? The downfall of Adam and Eve is the same moot path if you want.

I would not attribute either to the deus ex machina of divine intervention. To argue divine intervention (either and both ways) is to effectively remove the entire universe of voluntary action, choice, and self.

At least the ancient Greek gods and the Norse were up front – they bribed, peddled, persuaded, cajoled, threatened and even thunderbolted, people into following a particular course of action. For the most part they were content in their own carousing, and enjoyment of all of the pleasures of a normal life and left mankind to their own devices.

If I have the total free will that I imagine, then that is also an attribute that I must recognise in all others. That is why I have never (could nor would) presented my beliefs in a form that is intended to influence the beliefs of others. Hence the explanation at the beginning of this – “This response is not intended as a criticism of him [TF], or his beliefs, but as an expansion of my own (comparatively half-baked) ideas.”

That is why TF is wasting his time in proselytising (to the ol' probligo) his “physical beings” who are in some way more substantial than the “vaporous cloud” of my imagination. Actually, TF, that ties quite nicely back to the point that Botton was making and where I probably differ quite markedly from the religio-political atheists that make his point. It is that belief which has given so much of what I admire in man’s legacy. Not just Christianity, every religion has left its mark on our species. Who is to say that the Blue Mosque in Constantinople, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Ratana Church in Te Kao, or the great Bhuddist temples of Thailand are any less than The Vatican, Notre Dame, or St Pauls as statements of the power of man’s beliefs. Who is to say that the St Matthew Passion is any greater than the prayer chants of Bhuddists, or the readings from the Torah or Koran. Nothing diminishes the beauty of those works. Nothing makes one supreme over any other. They are all expressions of the power of faith held by humans whatever their religion. I have no doubt that the prayer chants of the Druids or the even more ancients were as powerful in their own way as the modern works and no less beautiful. It is sad that they are lost.

They are all works of man. I do not believe that any are the result of divine guidance. I revere them as artifacts of who and what we are as a species.

So, if I labour under the delusion of free will, of choice, of freedom from the intervention of a supreme being whoever or whatever alien that might happen to be, you must forgive me.

At least that delusion or illusion is making me happy; as a human, as a sentient being, and as an animal.

Monday, June 15, 2009


The good guys at aldaily have had a number of links to the latest (June) issue of Standpoint magazine. Among them is this offering from Alain De Botton.

He opines –
The most boring question to ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true”. It’s a measure of the banality of recent discussions on theological matters that it is precisely this matter which has hogged the limelight, pitting a hardcore group of fanatical believers against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.

With which I am in total agreement. Both sides see it as “essential” (for some unknown and never expressed reason) that they are proven to be “right” and that this god either does, or does not, exist. As an aside, you will see irrefutable and direct evidence in the comments to Botton’s column – from people who can not distinguish a reasoned moot from a politico-religious opportunity.

Botton continues –
The tragedy of modern atheism is to have ignored just how many aspects of religion continue to be interesting even when the central tenets of the great faiths are discovered to be entirely implausible. Indeed, it’s precisely when we stop believing in the idea that gods made religions that things become interesting, for it is then that we can focus on the human imagination which dreamt these creeds up.
It was our 18th-century forebears who, wiser than us in this regard, early on in the period which led to “the death of God” began to consider what human beings would miss out on once religion faded away. They recognised that religion was not just a matter of belief, but that it sat upon a welter of concerns that touched on architecture, art, nature, marriage, death, ritual, time — and that by getting rid of God, one would also be dispensing with a whole raft of very useful, if often peculiar and sometimes retrograde, notions that had held societies together since the beginning of time.

Now readers of my thoughts might see that and think “The ol probligo is going to agree with that!”, and they would be right! Why else, how else, would I be able to sit and listen to the magic of a Bach cantata like “Ich habe genug”, or the plainsong beauty of El Misteri d’Elx”, or the soaring beauty of the hymns written by Hildegard von Bingen. Not to emphasise the Christian success too much, there are similar (if not more challenging) examples ranging from the rhythms of Bhuddist chants to the vocal gymnastics of the muezzin’s Friday call to prayer, right through to the karakia of a kuia on the marae as she calls the dead to witness and to be acknowledged, or invites the visitors from the noa onto the safety and security of the marae.

But, back to Botton -
What would such a peculiar idea [of a secular church] involve? … We are the only society in history to have nothing transcendent at our centre, nothing which is greater than ourselves. In so far as we feel awe, we do so in relation to supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators.

And that, dear readers, is irrefutable.
The pre-scientific age, whatever its deficiencies, had at least offered its denizens the peace of mind that follows from knowing all man-made achievements to be inconsequent next to the spectacle of the universe. We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of our veneration than our brilliant and morally troubling fellow human beings.

Botton follows with his expansion of the idea of “a secular religion”; in the title of his article “A Religion for Atheists”.
That last sentence I have quoted though is the real nub of his whole premise, at least so far as I am concerned.

This is how I see it -
The first of these – the question – is the beginning of scientific enquiry; it is the need to find an explanation for an “unnatural” event.

The second, the fear of that unknown and unexplained event (and such a fear can be quite rational as we all should know) is the beginning of superstition.

The common ground between these two factors is where I believe theistic religion is formed. It develops in both forms; as the explanation of the event, and as the personal protection from the event and its consequences. One can choose either mono- or pan-theistic systems, or any combination in between.

As an example, compare three different stories of the rainbow. In the Judeo/Christian version it is God’s symbol of His regret for the great flood, and his promise that he would not take such action again. To the Greeks the rainbow is Iris, a messenger of the gods. She travels on the wind, with the storm ahead of her and the sun behind. It is little surprise that she is the daughter of Thaumus (Wonder). As a total contrast is the Maori legend of Uenuku and Hinepukoherangi the mist maiden of the dawn. Uenuku was a warrior who met Hinepukoherangi one morning and they fell deeply in love. After courting and marrying her, Uenuku tried to force her to stay during the day by trickery and as a result killed her. Ranginui (the sky) took pity on the mourning Uenuku and put him in the sky during the day. When mist and rainbow meet at dawn Uenuku and Hine are together again, if only for just that brief moment.

It can be seen that even an event as everyday as a rainbow can give rise to explanations that are at the same time beautiful and profound.

Now Botton claims that there is “nothing transcendent at our centre”. I would point to the rainbow and say “It is simple to say ‘we know how…’, but there is a magic there which has to be respected. We can illustrate in an experiment, but we can not recreate on the scale of the natural event.” A religious person can claim “…created by God”.

I recall a brief conversation I had with (I think) TF on a quotation he had vaguely recalled. I gave him in response –

“What is this world if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare”

I don’t believe, I never have believed, that I need a “religion”.

My “religion” is all around me. Every day. Without fail.
I take the time to stand and stare, in wonderment.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Ah, the pleasures of life... sitting here, thinking of as little as possible having dined very well on my wife's cooking - lamb shanks is red wine - and listening for the first time to El Misteri d'Elx.

Beautiful music, written in the 15th Century but the recording made from a Renaissance document.

The CD? Veritas 7243 5 45239 2


Sunday, June 07, 2009

Open letter to the Jonkey...

I sent this to the Herald today. The chances of seeing it in print - very remote...


My thanks to the NZ Herald for keeping me in contact with the increasing debate on the ActSupercity.

What is becoming increasingly apparent are the real reasons - other than the "dysfunction of the Auckland Region" - the true reasons, the political justifications, for the amalgamations and the proposed political structure being put in place.

It is not just a matter of John Key's endorsement of John Banks as the leader of the supercity. I would have expected nothing less from the old boy school of political networking. One only has to think back to the time of the initial announcements, and the handfuls of butter being applied by Banks in favour of the scheme. In fact, Banks may well have been told (by his political mates) to back off somewhat in his over-enthusiastic and effusive praise; good things come to those who wait...

There is also the Spectre hiding in the darkest corners of Epsom; the political promises of successive local and governmental representatives to reduce the load of local taxes on their respective electorates. That shadow is well lit by a small report that appeared, not in the Herald but in the Eastern Courier, on Friday. That report summarises the Long Term Capital Plans impact on the borrowing levels of the seven Auckland Councils. For a ratepayer of Manukau City it makes for frightening reading. Potentially, the long term borrowing for each of the Councils is expected to roughly double in the next ten years from $1,219 per person (based on region-wide averages) at the end of this year to $2,665 in ten years. For clarity, that is based upon the current LTCCPs, the current population.

It is when you take each Council individually that the Spectre starts to take shape in that very dark corner. If the Supercity does not proceed, then as a citizen of Manukau City I can expect my "indebtedness" to increase from $670 to $1,360 (excluding the proposed water paradise). A person living in North Shore will face an increase from $1,600 to $2,590, Auckland City from $1,180 to $2,730.

The Supercity will in fact double my personal indebtedness at the end of those ten years from $1,360 to $2,665, about a four-fold increase on the present.

But it does not stop there. The management of the individual cities has varied considerably over the past 20 years since the last reorganisation. The consequences of those variations is now to be spread (like the butter) over people who had no part in the election, representation, formulation or imposition of those policies. Not once, in any of the Hidean Edicts and Keysian Principles, has there been any indication that the Supercity will be required to ringfence the costs, the liabilities, the assets, and the benefits, of the present individual authorities.

Yes, the Auckland region has been dysfunctional, in a wide range of activities and over a long period of time. What must be said is that the responsibility for a great deal of that dysfunction does not lie entirely with the individual authorities. Auckland's problems have not been helped by the interference and broken promises of successive Governments which seem to have been driven more by the Jafa Principle than by reason or sense.

Let's face it. If the Supercity had existed would there already be a (unneeded) motorway over Judges Bay? Would we yet have universal ticketing on public transport? Would the twin-tracking of the northwest rail already be in place? Would the extension of (light) rail to the airport be started? Would there be less congestion on the major arterials? I suspect that there would be very little if any difference from what has already been done and achieved.

What the perpetrators of this reorganisation must understand is that if the Supercity does not work, then the Auckland Region is not going to hand any solace to the National and Act parties for a long time to come.

The indications are, as I outlined at the beginning, are not hopeful.

Pass the butter, Marlon.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Swine flu...

I’m sorry, but when I come across any headline in ol’ Granny Herald (page 3) like the one announcing that a scientist in the US has “discovered” that the Swine Flu bug originated in NZ it just makes me cringe more than somewhat.

A quick probligo review…

Scientist makes announcement that SF originated in NZ.

What is the basis for this “discovery”? Something to do with the fact that the virus carried by a group of Auckland students (of whom 3 were actually infected and a further 4 “developed symptoms”) had close DNA links to the outbreak in Mexico. Now, the student party had been in Mexico for a couple of weeks practising their Spanish in amongst with the locals; right?

And, I just guess that it is totally logical that one of their number (remember 3 came back with SF-like symptoms after 2 weeks in Mexico) had caught a stray virus from the biological warfare division of ESR in Wellington; right? Before the group left for Mexico; right? So we can safely assume that that one student has infected some one hundred or so people in a wide area of Mexico; right? And even more in the US as a result!!

Not just that, but in the intervening month or so, there have been another 9 or 10 potential cases of SF in NZ. That means that NZ must be a real hot-bed of infection arising from the biological warfare division of ESR. Not only that, but NZ has been actively toting the disease into Australia!! So effective has that campaign been that there are well over 1,000 confirmed cases of SF in Australia, a cruise liner tied up for several days with a quarantine flag flying (that at least was fact), and the locals have started beating up on Indian students (perhaps mistakenly thinking that they are Maori).

In the meantime, the scientist who started this whole miasma has suddenly recanted; raising the obvious questions – why did he say it in the first place, and why has he recanted?
An American scientist says he was misquoted as saying the swine flu virus originated in "either New Zealand or China".

The director of Louisiana State University's division of biotechnology and molecular medicine, Gus Kousoulas, had been quoted as saying: "We think it [swine flu] began in New Zealand or China."

But he subsequently told the New Zealand Science Media Centre: "The statement was based on early phylogenetic analysis of available sequences. It was misquoted.

"There is no basis currently to support a New Zealand origin. While we still do not know the true origin, a US or Mexico origin is more likely," he added.

Equally obvious as the questions is the answer – he has been paid his 30 pieces of silver by ESR and their friends. This germ warfare experiment in Wellington is so highly secret, and so dangerous, that even the Americans are sworn to highest secrecy from Obama on down.

Well, I had to get him into the picture somewhere given the extreme US rights panic and dismay that the guy might be in the process of turning the US into a success; sorry, successful communist state. I am not going to debate that one here simply because it ranks as much as the idea that ESR are responsible for SF.

Mind you, if the ESR is looking for experimental subjects there are a number of people around here who would sing their praises – starting with the Jonkey – if they were to approach Dr Richard Worth and offer him his 30 pieces for a good ol’ dose of the SF.

A good start to the foil hat season, I have to say.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Big Bill - 2

The commentators in the weekend papers were somewhat less charitable in their views on the Budget than was I.

Some, the more right wing, went off to cry in their beer about the demise of the tax cut programme. No sympathy or concern there; that was a move both signalled and necessary to keep some semblance of fiscal management.

To the left though there was a degree of concern that the measures taken in the Budget had left little in the way of wriggle room for the future. Central to that line of argument was (generally) the with-holding of the Cullen Fund contributions.

There is still a concern in my mind.

I remember the approach taken by Olde Mother Richardson. Her (political) nephew might be into the same line of irrationality.

Sorry, but "trickle down" has been proven to be a myth; not just in NZ. It is also economicly, politicly and publicly discredited in the US, Europe and Canada.

Oh, "trickle down" and beer being cried into reminds me - anyone from outside NZ tried our Steinlager beer. It is not my drop of choice. I prefer a very dark 5 malt beer; something to chew on. Take a look - the current Steinlager ad is very likely to be on tube somewhere... :D ;)