The Next Crash

Why should I lie awake in the middle of the night thinking about the next financial crash, when we’ll again see failing banks and governments frantically trying to stabilise ‘confidence ‘?

Of course there will be another financial crash. There always is. It’s built into the system.

Maybe next time we should apply some common sense, says my feverish nighttime reverie.

  • Put failing banks into special administration, keeping current contracts going where possible.
  • Remove and investigate bank directors, recovering mis-spent money where possible.
  • Break up big banks rapidly into saleable and social banks eg regional banks.
  • Crucially, the money it costs should be created by central banks as ‘sovereign money’, not taken from the people and public services by increasing public debt and resulting ‘austerity ‘.
  • Of course this will slightly devalue the currency, but then that is simply a recognition of its true value in this situation.

If only…

Featured image of bank run 1933, via Wikimedia Commons

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Red Kites at Rhaedr

According to the RSPB, the red kite was a valued scavenger during the Middle Ages that helped keep streets clean, and was protected by royal decree. However, by the 16th century a bounty was placed on its head. Kites and other birds of prey were persecuted as vermin. By the the early 1900s red kite were extinct in England and Scotland, and just a few were left in remote parts of central Wales. Conservation efforts have been ongoing since then.

This has been particularly effective in central Wales, helped by the regular kite feeding programme at Gigrin Farm near Rhaedra Gwy (anglicised name Rhayader). The success of the programme has been amazing, and a visit to the farm at kite feeding time sees the amazing spectacle of hundreds of kites converging on the farm. The sky is literally full of these beautiful birds. Amazingly, all are descended from a single female, which shows just how close these birds came to extinction in the UK.

red kite 1

 

This shows just what might be achieved in England, where prey birds (including marsh and hen harrier, peregrine falcon, golden eagle, buzzard) are persecuted to this day, particularly in areas where driven grouse shooting is prevalent. See eg RSPB report.

Red kites are regularly seen throughout this sparsely populated area of Wales. These two were following a farmer’s tractor ploughing a field, along with tens of other kites and seagulls.

 

red kite 2

Note that Gigrin Farm has specialist hides available for the more professional photographers.

Judgmentalism reveals our insecurities

I read this post a while ago but didn’t think to reblog it, which I am now doing. Not being judgmental is a challenge for us all, and Dave DuBay expresses well how to handle it.

The Painted Porch

And that also puts other people’s judgmentalism into perspective.

© Dave DuBay

Everyone knows that a stronger person can overpower you. But perhaps that’s not quite true.

Physically, yes, you can be overpowered. But even if they threaten to kill you they still can’t make you do something that you think is wrong. Socrates chose to die rather than agree to something he thought was wrong. Jesus is probably the best known example.

They can’t even make you believe something that is false. If you verbalize agreement when really you disagree then they haven’t truly changed your mind.

Philosopher Epictetus points out that at noon when the sun is shining brightly someone cannot really make you believe that it’s nighttime, even if you say it’s night. If someone sincerely thought it was night they would be mistaken. That’s why he thought that most people hold false beliefs (which they might act…

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Polarity

Polarities obey polar logic, which is not the same as having logical opposites. Polar opposites exist by virtue of each other – they need each other. Eg day/night, inner/outer, understanding/imagination, left/right brain, material/spiritual, masculine/feminine, magnetic poles, yin/yang.

Shifts in the relationship between the poles give rise to imbalances that inevitably need to be rebalanced. This is not a logical process but requires imagination and creativity.

If the imbalance is not corrected, stasis occurs, the polarity loses its active, creative, character – the polar system is not working. Eg if we focus entirely on the outer at the expense of the inner, life becomes shallow and without meaning, meaning coming from inner experience. One might imagine a materialist world devoid of inner/spiritual experience to be meaningless (cf Beckett, Sartre) or a surface life of triviality and entertainment (cf today’s popular culture).

Look at politics for another example. There is a clear polarity between the capitalist entrepreneur and the needs of labour – if you like, capitalism vs socialism. Since the 1970s the balance has been shifting away from socialism, a process driven by people who believe that one ‘side’ can win. They are deluded. Inequality gets ever greater. In a dysfunctional system, no one wins.

Or consider integration of UK with EU (remainers) vs UK being totally independent (brexiteers). Full independence is an illusion, just as full integration is probably not desirable. We need the benefits of both. Theresa May seems to be trying to tread that necessary balancing line between the two, as is, probably, Jeremy Corbyn. Good luck to them. A sudden ‘hard brexit’ would simply mean years of hardship, until a new balance of the inevitable relationship is achieved.

The Chinese yin/yang picture perfectly encapsulates the nature of these polarities.

Inspired by Gary Lachman’s book ‘Lost Knowledge of the Imagination’, p122. 

Can computers ever be conscious?

This question is posed in an interesting paper True Artificial Consciousness – Is It Possible? from Sean Webb on the IONS blog. The paper is quite detailed and worth a read if you’re interested in the subject. My take is somewhat simpler, as follows.

Everything has an ‘inner’ and an ‘outer’. Science and technology deal with the ‘outer’, consciousness is a feature of the ‘inner’. Could the twain ever meet? Explaining consciousness is regarded as a ‘hard problem’ of science – too right – they operate in different domains.

So-called artificial intelligence is basically technology that emulates the real intelligence that flows forth from consciousness. This emulation can increasingly appear to be conscious, and even pass the so-called Turing Test of intelligent behaviour, but I would suggest it is not really conscious – could its ‘inner’ conceivably emerge from the ‘outer’ algorithms?

So, if we let machines control things we finish up with a mechanistic universe that is devoid of the spark of consciousness, indeed could become its persecutor.

Featured illustration of the Turing Test by By Mushii , via Wikimedia Commons

 

Crane Fly

craneflyAt this time of the year these crane flies frequently appear inside the house or a vehicle, and have to be persuaded to go out. With their long legs they seem to flap around all over the place. I’ve always known them as ‘daddy longlegs’.

Thistle

The common thistle (cirsium, I think this is) is often disregarded because of its spiky attire, and also because it is somewhat common, probably because the spikes make it difficult for grazers to eat. Take a second look and it can be rather beautiful, both in the heads, intertwined with delicate silky threads…

thistle heads

… and in the flowers that emerge therefrom.

thistle flower

It helps to be using the Panasonic TZ200, a step up in capability from my TZ80, probably largely due to its increased sensor size and enhanced macro capability.

Dee Estuary Abstract

dee estuary evening

Abstract patterns on the sands of the Dee estuary, with single boat feature. The setting sun is low down near the horizon to the right. Taken from the cliffs near Thursaston, Wirral.

dee estuary boats

Or do you prefer this one?

Saving Capitalism

Readers of liberal media know the story. Inequality is getting worse, banks, corporations and rich individuals distort ‘the system’ to their own advantage. Communities are being gradually destroyed, as is the ability of the mass of people to support public services. In short, modern capitalism has become unfair and unsustainable. And then on top of that, increasing automation is destroying ever more jobs, just as education is creating ever more people capable of doing them.

saving capitalismRobert Reich is a professor on public policy at Berkeley and well known author. His book ‘Saving Capitalism’ explains it all, particularly in the context of the US. His subtitle ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ expresses well where he is coming from.

Reich points out that typical public debate between right and left between ‘free markets’ and ‘more government’ actually obscures the real issue. Governments are responsible for designing, organising and enforcing markets, and this is where the focus should be. Particularly in the US, moneyed interests have successfully subverted the process in their own favour. The resulting increased inequality is there for all to see.

As Reich explains, this direction has been supported by both Republican and Democratic establishments from the era of Reagan, through Clinton, Bush, Obama. The countervailing powers to the extremes of capitalism have been gradually eroded, organised labour largely destroyed, ever-reduced and ineffective regulation, lack of control on monopolies, lax bankruptcy laws for big companies, shareholders given preference over other stakeholders, legislation influenced ever more by big money, revolving doors between corporations and government, obscene rewards to chief executives… All of course came to a head with the financial crash of 2008, after which banks were deemed ‘too big to fail’, were bailed out and the American people paid the price.

As Reich points out, this sort of thing has all happened in the US before, and the system has eventually righted itself, notably when ‘big oil’ was dismantled, when Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’ came along, when AT&T was dismantled and so on.

The challenge today is to restore suitable countervailing power to the political-economic system, so that the system can again flourish, and democracy itself be renewed. And this in a climate where technology increasingly means that the old ways of mass employment will no longer work.

The ‘rules of the market’ need to be designed anew, and the corporation ‘reinvented’. Reich is confident that this can be done. But to do it people need to begin to care and maybe re-establish some of the grassroots movements that provide necessary countervailing power. The Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn movements begin to show that the impetus is there among younger people, in both UK and US. Indeed on the other side of the spectrum the Tea Party showed similar characteristics.

The populism currently sweeping the world is not the answer, rule by over-blown egos is ultimately non-democratic. Reich highlights the problem and the needed direction with a clarity that is commendable. We all need to be listening and using what influence we might have.

Freedom to choose

A well thought out post from Jane Fritz. Food for thought for all those getting on in years, and those who potentially will take decisions for them.

Robby Robin's Journey

I’ve been mulling over the challenges we face when we find ourselves having to rely on others for some (or all) aspects of our lives after having been independent for as long as we can remember. After having made our own decisions for as long as we can remember. This isn’t easy, not easy at all. It may happen because of mobility issues or other limitations due to infirmity, or simply because of advanced age. When my nephew posted this fabulous image on Facebook earlier today I realized that what I’ve been thinking about is really how to preserve our freedom to choose – to make our own decisions – in the face of limited independence.

I know, this sounds like a sobering subject, but not nearly as sobering as the world’s political landscape right now, and at the moment it feels like there’s far more chance of helping improve our…

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Deer Antlers

It’s the antler growing season in Tatton Park, Knutsford. The growing antlers have a wonderful soft appearance, compared to the harsher, more angular full grown variety. I was fortunate to capture antler pics of both red deer and fallow deer on recent visits to the park.

The antlers of the two species are completely different, in that fallow deer are the only UK deer with palmate antlers.

Muscovy Duck

Muscovy ducks are quite large, rather ugly, and somewhat ungainly ducks. They are native to Mexico, Central and South America, but have established themselves also in parts of the US, notably Texas where we they are quite common.

This one in Hermann Park, Houston shows an attractive iridescence in the feathers.

muscovy duck hermann park

The most remarkable feature of these ducks is the blackish or red knob seen at the bill base, with the bare skin of the face a similar colour.

muscovy duck head

Why these are called Muscovy Ducks seems to be a bit of a mystery, as they have no clear historical relationship with Russia.

Touring Trumpland

In March we took a road trip through some of the Deep South US States. A few images stick in my mind.

Exploring the Louisiana flatlands down towards the Gulf, south of Lake Charles – Lafayette. This is clearly hurricane alley. There is evident poverty. Many plots of land have an aged RV next to the shack, ready for quick getaway. Some just comprise an RV in a shelter.

In Birmingham, Alabama the great industrial centre built by blacks for white money is no more, just a few museums, like the Sloss steel mill.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the famous choo choo runs no more and its very fine station is closed.

FT._PAYNE_OPERA_HOUSE
Fort Payne Opera house

Fort Payne in Alabama was built in the 1830s to intern and relocate Cherokee Indians. In the 1880s, due to the railroad, it was a booming iron and steel town until the minerals ran out. The opera house is still there. In the early 1900s a hosiery industry started and by the 1990s Fort Payne was ‘sock capital of the world’. Globalisation put an end to that, and the place now feels like it is struggling.

winona station
Winona station

Winona in Mississippi is another a town which owes its existence to the railroad. It now seems more dead than alive, with many shuttered buildings.

Vicksburg, Mississippi was the site of a major battle of the Civil War in 1863, and grew on the back of the trading boats plying the River Mississippi. Vicksburg has a history of suppression of first Indians and then blacks.

vicksburg mansion
Vicksburg mansion

It is now a tourist town, with an apparently prosperous posh residential area. But Main Street looks faded, with many closed shops. Drunks or druggies patrol the edges of the civilised area.

I see all these as symptoms that the great American Dream is not working. Struggling towns and communities, due to jobs destroyed or moved elsewhere, particularly due to globalisation. Donald Trump offered change from this failed system, which has been engineered by both Republicans and Democrats. It is not surprising that people voted for him despite reservations on his character.

There is no evidence yet that politicians other than the Bernie Sanders left wing Democrats offer any solutions.

Featured image is the now-static Chattanooga Choochoo.
Picture of Fort Payne Opera House courtesy Jerry & Roy Klotz, via Wikimedia Commons.

Another Place, Another Time

We arrive at Crosby Beach to see Antony Gormley’s Another Place once again. We happen to arrive at a super high tide, waves are splashing on the promenade and it has just started gently raining. Gormley’s men are mostly under water. Not much chance of photos in this greyness.

But then, from the west new weather appears with a ribbon of light on the horizon and over the Welsh mountains, which slowly broadens as the tide begins to recede, releasing Gormleys men from watery submersion.

The light highlights the mass of windmills in Liverpool Bay, evidence of mankind reaching forth to a more enlightened world beyond fossil fuels. So not too bad for photos after all.

crosby windmills
“Westward look! The Land is Bright” Winston Churchill

The tyranny of metrics and algorithms

I just read a short review by David Lorimer of a book The Tyranny of Metrics, author Jerry Z. Muller. This problem of over-reliance on metrics was apparent during my career in industry, and is increasingly apparent in the world today, particularly in management and government.

Metrics are defined and targeted, and actions are put in place to achieve the targets. All very focusing, you might think, but what is lost is attention to the real world and its appropriate management – all the other factors not involved in the metric. We begin to manage by the numbers, and not by the need. For example, the quarterly results, the bottom line, become all-important, never mind we have to ‘lose’ hundreds of workers in transferring jobs to places where labour is cheaper and standards are less, destroying social cohesion, never mind we have to make the social care system unnecessarily harsh to achieve savings, and on and on.

Unfortunately, this obsession with metrics is undermining professionals across many fields. As the review points out, “judgement based on experience is the hallmark of an accomplished professional in every field”. The over-emphasis on metrics is slowly undermining the accumulated wisdom of centuries of professionalism. It also overrides any consideration of human values.

Worse, computers and so-called artificial intelligence are increasingly being used in situations that can supposedly be managed by algorithms. Indeed, this can be very helpful to the professional – enabling better-informed decisions. The problem, however, comes when the algorithm is given control, and the professional is cut out of the process – what a great cost saving that would be – but at what cost?

It’s all about what sort of world we want to live in. Metrics and algorithms are good servants, but incompetent masters. The world is not algorithmic, and we cannot allow our societies to be ruled by rigid targets and faceless algorithms. There lies an ultimate tyranny.

The driverless car presents an interesting challenge to my rant. Can we ever trust its algorithms and let them loose willy nilly on the roads? They may actually prove safer in the long run than the average ‘human’ driver. So why not? At the end of the day, people must remain in charge at some level (maybe not in the car) and take the key decisions.

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls was the title of the most popular of J.B.Priestley’s plays, which are not generally popular today, probably because they are quite philosophical and not merely entertaining. In his closing speech, the inspector is quite profound:

“We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.”

The play premiered in Russia in 1945, although the action takes place in one day in the English Midlands in 1912. It can be seen as a social comment on the attitudes that led up to the destruction of the two world wars. The above quote also seems prescient today, when crystallised attitudes and separation are potentially leading us once again into peril.

This post was inspired by Paul Kieniewicz’s review of
‘Time and the Rose Garden’, by Anthony Peake,
which is about the works of Priestley.

Photo of Priestley statue in Bradford By Chemical Engineer,
via Wikimedia Commons

Empathy

Following is another great poem by Steve Taylor in his latest newsletter. It expresses in poetic form an important truth behind much of what is ‘wrong’ with the world today. The polarity and separation evident in much of today’s politics suggests that we have a long way to go.

Empathy

If you have no empathy, you see enemies everywhere –
when others come close, you sense danger;
so you strengthen your defences and protect your resources
afraid they might steal what’s rightfully yours.

But if you have empathy, you see brothers and sisters;
when others come close, you sense kinship;
so you welcome them, embrace them, open your life up to them,
knowing they’re entitled to share what’s yours.

If you have no empathy, you feel incomplete
and the goal of your life is to accumulate –
to build an empire of achievements and possessions
to try to make yourself whole.

But if you have empathy, you don’t feel a sense of lack
and the goal of your life is to contribute –
to alleviate suffering, to help heal the world
and so strengthen your connection to the whole.

If you have no empathy, you see a world full of boundaries
and the closer you look, the more distinctions you see
and the more autonomous the different parts become
until, right at the bottom, there’s nothing but tiny, solid particles.

But if you have empathy, you know that boundaries are illusory
and the closer you look, the more absurd distinctions seem
until they dissolve away, and at the deepest point,
there’s a vast space of formless oneness.

If you have no empathy, other human beings are objects –
machines with no inner life, who only have value
if they can help you satisfy your desires
and who can be discarded once they have no more use.

But if you have empathy, every person is a universe –
a precious manifestation of spirit,
full of infinite space, deep with unknown forces,
rich with the radiance of being.

If you have no empathy, your soul is hard and constricted
and you see the world as if through the window of a cell
and your isolation fills you with a frustration
that makes you rage with hatred at the world.

But if you have empathy, your soul is soft and fluid
and you’re part of the world, as the world is part of you;
and through your openness, like a river through a channel.

But if you have empathy, your soul is soft and fluid
and you’re part of the world, as the world is part of you;
and through your openness, like a river through a channel.
there’s an endless flow of love.

An unfortunate legacy of Justus von Liebig

Every good idea that takes off in human thinking seems to have its downside that eventually requires correction, as it is taken to extremes. I think this is what Hegel’s dialectic of thesis –> antithesis –> synthesis was about. The German chemist Justus von Liebig provides an example very relevant today, in a story told by Beata Bishop in the recent SciMed newsletter.

Von Liebig (1802-1873) is variously regarded as the founder of organic chemistry and the father of the fertilizer industry. He notably discovered that nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are key minerals that plants need to grow and thrive. Thus came about the modern fertilizer industry, which gradually supplanted traditional farming techniques based on manure, compost, crop rotation, leaving fields fallow, etc.

Of course, initially this approach appeared successful and crops thrived. With the development of modern pesticides the industrial approach to agriculture seemed sensible and was commercially successful. But what has only become apparent after many decades is that this approach is over-simple and other vital minerals and organic matter are being gradually lost from the now-depleted soils. The organic movement arose to try to counteract this, but still only has a foothold where people can afford it. And the agrochemical industry has become so powerful that it is difficult to change towards the organic antithesis, or indeed any new synthesis.

Of course the pendulum will swing back, they always do. Unfortunately, this is also a critical time of climate change, caused by the related explosion of fossil fuel exploitation over the same period.

Historically, civilisations come to an end when changes of climate and crop yields eventually make them unsupportable. We really now are in a critical period of human history, partly thanks to the worthy efforts of Justus von Liebig. But never say die, necessity is the mother of invention, and humanity is a very inventive and adaptable species.