September 18, 2014

Horse 1754 - ¥£$ It's The Pound Scots

Later today the people of Scotland will vote dissolve the United Kingdom and end the union of the parliaments which has existed since 1707.

One of the issues surrounding this is to do with the currency that Scotland will use after separation. Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, have both made it perfectly clear that they do not like the prospect of sharing the Pound Sterling with a foreign country.
The question then becomes one of what currency an independent Scotland would use and the way I figure it, the only likely outcome is to return to an independent Pound Scots.

The Pound Scots finally saw use in 1707 under Queen Anne who at that stage had a personal union of the crowns of Scotland first and then England. The Pound Scots had been customarily valued at a rate of 12:1.
That is that one Pound Scots would have purchased 1 shilling and 8 pence (1s 8d.) but more importantly that a Scottish Shilling was worth one English Penny.

The Bank of Scotland which had been created in 1695 (six years after the Bank of England) started to issue paper bank notes which were mainly fiduciary and included a "promise to pay" gold coin on demand.
The Royal Bank of Scotland, founded in 1727, issued its own banknotes as did others including the Clydesdale Bank.
The Banknote (Scotland) Act of 1845, allowed banks in Scotland the right to issue notes without any obvious backing and this pretty well much existed until 2009 with the new Banking Act.

The problem that Scotland faces if it becomes independent is that because the rump UK wouldn't allow Scottish banks to produce Pounds Sterling, they'd have to write something else. A customary position would in effect leave central banking duties and monetary policy to a foreign country.
Scotland probably wouldn't be allowed to join the Euro because those same banks would certainly not be allowed to issue Euro currency.

The only viable position as I see it, is to establish a new central bank and overseer to be charged with currency, money supply, and interest rates. A new Reserve Bank of Scotland (for want of a better name) would fulfil that function.

The most likely and seamless way to manage the changeover would be to write into legislation that all banknotes issued by Scottish Banks would automatically qualify as Pounds Scots and a new set of coinage would be issued. The official rate on changeover day would be 1:1; after that, the Pounds Scots would be subject to trading like any other currency. Prices need not change at all. A loaf of Hovis Granary Bread which cost £1.45 Sterling would cost £1.45 Scots.
Just like the other D-Day on 15th February 1971, the changeover would be relatively smooth and take about 18 months.

About the only thing which would need to be decided is what would go on the coins and whether or not pennies and tuppences even need to exist any more. HM Queen Elizabeth would still be the Queen of Scotland, and her face would still be on the back like it is in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the Commonwealth.

This is why I don't understand the scaremongering. If the entire of Europe could adopt a new currency relatively easily and the UK has already made a switch from £/s/d to decimal within the lifetime of many people, changing from the Pound Sterling to Pound Scots should be a doddle. It requires no conversions in people's books, no change at all with the notes in people's pockets and coins in Scotland would be replaced in the normal course of circulation though the banks.

Why is it so hard people? In the words of a wise meerkat "Simples."

Addenda:
I don't know what proportion of the £3.5bn worth of currency currently on issue by the Scottish banks has been issued by RBS but if they decide to relocate to London, they would no longer be resident in Scotland and ergo lose their right to issue currency. Furthermore all currency on issue would be illegal and they'd be forced to buy it all back. 
I suspect that this might inadvertently cause a run and possibly a collapse. I hope so. RBS received £46 billion in bail-out money in 2008 and 2009, then paid out billions in "bonuses" to its management and not one of its directors went to gaol for negligence. Deliberately causing a run on a bank, might be cause for imprisonment under the act.

September 17, 2014

Horse 1753 - Letters of Last Resort

One of the very first tasks that befalls a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is the writing of four handwritten letters which are to be sealed, sent to the captains of the four nuclear capable submarines of the Royal Navy; which are to be opened and acted upon in the event that an enemy nuclear strike has destroyed the British government, the Prime Minister and a nominated "second person" (usually the Deputy PM). As the letter is still in existence after the United Kingdom would have itself presumably suffered a catastrophic existence failure, then it could very well be the last official act of government.
The four letters are sealed and sent to the  four nuclear capable submarines and remain unopened until the worst should happen. If there is a change of Prime Minister, these letters are destroyed but still unopened; so the details contained in the letters, will remain unknown to everyone except for the Prime Minister.
I had a go at writing one of these letters... assuming that I somehow became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the task befell me. This is that letter:

Dear Captain,

If you are reading this letter, then the gravity of the situation is already self-apparent. Her Majesty's Government of Great Britain has been destroyed; along with the necessary chain of command which would be necessary to instruct you further.

If you are the Captain of the "Port" crew - you are instructed to take your vessel to the point 54.0000°N and 20.0000°W.
If you are the Captain of the "Starboard" crew - you are instructed to take your vessel to the point 65.0000°N and 6.0000°W.

Once you had reached your designated point, you are instructed to wait until 1830 hours GMT on the next Friday, when you will then listen to Friday Night Comedy and then The Archers on BBC Radio 4 on Long Wave.
Without The Archers there is no civilisation. Without Friday night comedy, there is no joy either.

(You will then read this letter in the presence of all the crew at 1730 GMT).

If in the event there is no Friday Night Comedy or The Archers on BBC Radio 4, then you must evacuate this vessel to the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, when this vessel must present itself to the Royal Canadian Navy and await instructions from them. 

If there is no-one at the port of Halifax who will receive you, then you must evacuate this vessel to the port of Sydney, New South Wales, when this vessel must present itself to the Royal Australian Navy and await instructions from them. 

If there is no-one at the port of Sydney who will receive you, then you must evacuate this vessel to the port of San Diego, California, when this vessel must present itself to the United States Navy and await instructions from them.

If it can be properly ascertained in the period between opening this letter and 1830 hours GMT on the next Friday that a state of nuclear war certainly exists, this vessel is free to engage with all enemies but only so far as to defend itself. The vessel must not retaliate with nuclear weapons.

If it can be properly ascertained in the period between opening this letter and 1830 hours GMT on the next Friday that a state of nuclear war certainly does not exist, this vessel is free to engage with all enemies but only so far as to defend itself. The vessel must not retaliate with nuclear weapons.

Above all, this vessel is to maintain standards of professionalism and order. Government doesn't stop merely because the country has been destroyed. Annihilation is bad enough. We do not need anarchy to make it even worse.

We thank you for your continuing endurance.

Regards,
AT Rollason, Prime Minister

Si vis pacem, para bellum

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves!

I have a few things to say about this:

1. There is an assumption that the four nuclear submarines are within radio transmission range of the UK. I also thought about the fact that sending to a fairly remote point somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic would mean that they are well and truly out of the way.

2. The fact that Radio 4 would be out and might come back online, is something of a safeguard. If this was read on a Friday and they heard nothing, then the amount of lead time to evacuate to Canada might only be a few hours but if it was opened on a Saturday, they'd be forced to listen and determine if in fact a nuclear war had taken place for almost a whole week.

3. By sending them to Canada, Australia and then the United States, they will have swept a very large portion of the globe. This should give them adequate time to assess the situation.

4. As a nuclear submarine as a weapon of war is itself a weapon of last resort and the thing which it supposedly is trying to defend has already been destroyed, then I see very little point in retaliating with nuclear weapons, merely as an act of revenge. Usually the point of making maneuvers and attacking an enemy in a war is to gain some sort of advantage; what is the point when there us literally nothing left to be gained?

What's interesting is that the system has been tested this century and purely by mistake:
http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/radio-silence-puts-subs-on-nuclear-1157478
THE captains of Britain’s nuclear submarines had a wake up call today - when the BBC mysteriously went off air for 15 minutes. Secret orders to captains say orders to launch a strike are to be opened and acted upon only if the submarine cannot tune in to Radio 4’s Today programme for a given number of days.
THE captains of Britain’s nuclear submarines had a bit of a wake up call today - when the BBC mysteriously went off air for 15 minutes.
The Today programme, which is popular with government ministers, went silent just before the 8 o’clock news because of a fire alarm at BBC HQ.
- Manchester Evening News, 12th August 2004

The thing is that, the Letters of Last Resort are such that not one of them (thankfully) has ever been opened. If you were Prime Minister, you could just as easily draw pictures or write out the words to recipe and no-one would be any the wiser; by the time that they actually did read the letter, you wouldn't live to regret it anyway. Maybe you could even write "So long and thanks for all the fish".

As an exercise, writing Letters of Last Resort is an interesting prospect because it asks you think about a point in time beyond the end. I imagine that it would be a terrible prospect for a Prime Minister to consider and I would suspect that it would be quite a daunting task to face on day one in the new job.

September 12, 2014

Horse 1752 - Vice Rear Cabin Boy Bobo Gargle

- Vice Rear Cabin Boy Bobo Gargle

The problem with writing a biographical piece about military personnel is that a lot of their records* are still part of active files and therefore not able to be released to the public. It's even worse if the person who you happen to be doing research about, has a an interesting past.**

Bobo Gargle was born on 3rd October 1962 in Nyngan, Western New South Wales. Even as a young child, Bobo professed his love for the sea but this was probably because he lived so far away from it.
In 1981 at the age of 19, Bobo joined the Royal Australian Navy and served on several gunboats but it was in the First Gulf War in 1990 whilst on the HMAS Implausible when he really came to fame.

The Implausible was on a mission to clear sea mines from the harbour and the sea immediately surrounding Kuwait, when it was fired upon by the Iraqi Air Force. As a tracking and radar operator, Gargle detected multiple incoming Scud missiles and knew that he had to act but he was also aware that being such a small vessel, the Implausible did not possess adequate anti-air capabilities.
Taking the initiative, Gargle immediately stormed the bridge and after threatening the pilots with a wooden spoon, which was the only thing that he could muster at short notice, he seized control of the ship and thrust the engines to full aft; the Implausible lurched 12 meters in the time that it took for the Scuds to arrive.
All of them missed but had he not acted, at least one of them would have struck the bow of the vessel.
Over the next few years, Gargle would again find himself on the HMAS Ennui during the 1999 East Timorese crisis and the HMAS Rogan Josh during the second Gulf War in 2003.

But it was in naval relations where Gargle would really shine. In 2007 whilst Brendan Nelson was the Minister for Defence, Gargle became a Navy Relations Officer and would communicate issues to the Minister; whilst also providing feedback from the Minster to the Naval chiefs of staff.
The Navy like all military forces, faces the dual challenge of engaging in difficult circumstances whilst at the same time, having to justify its actions to an often hostile press and public. Added to this is the fact that running the miltary is expensive and also involves killing people. There is a strange duality in that society sees this as being necesary for the defence of the nation but still wants to prosectue blame.
This has been especially difficult recently, as it is the Navy who is primarily charged with executing Operation Sovereign Borders. The Navy is charged with performing a function professionally whilst at the same time the job itself is morally repugnant to a great portion of the population.

It was Bobo Gargle's media unit who first made the obvious and gloriouslu obfuscatory terms "on-water" and "operational matters" known to the public.
Of course it it obvious that the Royal Australian Navy deals with "on-water" matters because Navies are by nature a water borne force. Likewise is also obvious that it deals with "operational matters" because not to do so is a self-referential absurdity.

Yet it is in new technology where Gargle is currently trying to communicate covertly.
Secret documents*** obtained by Horse can reveal that the Royal Australian Navy currently has a stealth ship equipped with high-powered laser weaponry, disintegration guns and electromagnetic pulse disturbance weapons. These are installed on a ship which the RAN doesn't admit exists**** called the HMAS Kraken.
Whilst the existence of the Kraken is denied, Gargle's now famous rallying cry for its release, is something of a veiled protest and attack of the secrecy surrounding it.

Horse has it on good authority***** that Bobo Gargle has been offered both the positions of the Governor of New South Wales and Victoria as well as the position of Governor-General of Australia; all of which he turned down. A man of the sea wants to remain with the sea and it is Horse's opinion that he should be offered at very least to be named as a Member of the Order of Australia.

*especially when they don't actually exist
** or in this case, totally made up
***so secret that, I just made them up
****because it doesn't
***** so good because we made it up

September 11, 2014

Horse 1751 - The 2% Emergency

More than likely, you've probably not been paying attention to the machinations surrounding the 2014/15 Federal Budget, other than the reports of cuts to services and various groups complaining about the unfairness of it all. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of taxation policy, most of us pay even less attention unless it actually affects us.
Having said that, it's probably even more unlikely that you've been paying attention to the actual rates for the current taxation year, unless you were actually in the industry.

Here then are the Individual income tax rates for the year 2014-15:
https://www.ato.gov.au/rates/individual-income-tax-rates/
Already, I can metaphorically hear you snoring.

For the 2014-15 year, the top headline marginal rate is 45%. The ATO's website though, adds this caveat:
The above rates do not include the Temporary Budget Repair Levy. The Temporary Budget Repair Levy is payable at a rate of 2% for taxable incomes over $180,000.
I find this extraordinary.

https://www.ato.gov.au/rates/individual-income-tax-for-prior-years/
The top marginal tax rate for 2005–06 and years prior was 47%, which is precisely the same as 45% + 2%.
Rather than adjust the marginal tax rate, they 2014-15 budget deliberately set out the 2% increase as a separate item. Instead of adjusting one digit, this 2% tax rise will get its own separate item on assessment notices.
What is the purpose of all of this?

In 2014-15 the Medicare Levy rises from 1.5% to 2% to cover the  National Disability Insurance Scheme; fair enough. In 1996-97 the Medicare Levy rose from 1.5% to 1.7% to cover the National Firearms Buyback Scheme, following the The Port Arthur massacre; fair enough. In 2011-12 a Flood Levy was instituted to cover the  Queensland Floods Recovery program; fair enough.
There is a history in Australia were specific tax rises have been enacted for specific purposes and as a nation, I think that we accept these as being fair and reasonable. The problem with the The Temporary Budget Repair Levy is that when a great number of economists doubt that we even have a so-called "Budget Emergency", it's a bit rich to specifically spell this out.
I don't even object to a tax rise. What I question is why there is a need to call a 2% tax increase a specific thing, when just adjusting the tax rates would have and does mechanically achieve the same function.

I think that naming this as the Temporary Budget Repair Levy, is an exercise in propaganda in the truest sense. Propaganda is about communicating a specific message and usually with the intent of  influencing attitudes of people. It's curious that the loaded political term of "staying on message" has entered the lexicon and I think that this is what this is about.
The message that has been repeatedly drilled into us, as though the electorate is moronically stupid, is that the 2014-15 budget is about cleaning up the mistakes left behind by the previous government. Never mind the fact that between 2001 and 2013, there were ten sets of tax cuts which effectively withered away the benefits of the boom of the early 00s, and those twelve years are nicely cleaved in twain by a Federal election. Quite literally those tax cuts were legislated by six of one and a half dozen of the other; so if there is a "budget emergency", both sides were in power and both sides are to blame.
No-one wants to alert us to this though.

This 2% is all about changing peoples' perception; perception is a marvellous thing.
I can't remember who said it but if you were in charge of killing one hundred people, make that one of them is a clown. People will remember that you killed one clown but no-one will care very much about the other 99 people.
So it is here. If the headline marginal tax rate had just risen from 45% to 47% then no-one would have said "boo".

The other thing I find really curious about this is that as strange as this sounds, this tax increase actually might be a marketing ploy to win an election.
As it stands, I think that the next Federal Election should take place between August 6 2016 and the last possible date is 14 January 2017. Before August 2016 though, the government may very well pick up some election triggers because of unpopular legislation.
If people lodging their 2014-15 tax returns are prone to do so later rather than earlier, then they will be lodging them and receiving assessment notices in the first half of 2016. This could very well be during or immediately before an election.
Even if it wasn't it still means that due to changes in the way that the ATO prints assessment notices, they are require by law to disclose the items in those notices; this includes the Temporary Budget Repair Levy. A taxation assessment notice is a perfect piece of propaganda if you want to drive home the case that the previous government was "irresponsible" whilst the current one is cleaning up a "budget emergency".
As a piece of election engineering, using taxation assessment notices is deviously fantastic.

For a start I think that the tax cuts in the boom actually were patently idiotic because taxation is a good counter-cyclical instrument and I also think that it is prudent to undo them. However, to use this as a clarion call that this is especially fiscally responsible as opposed the other side which wasn't, is a little bit dishonest.
It's a bit like having garlic, onions, shallots and radishes for breakfast - it isn't wrong but you just shouldn't do it - and you certainly shouldn't make loud announcements to the person sitting next to you. You might be saying something perfectly sensible but they'll think that your message stinks.

September 10, 2014

Horse 1750 - BIG Numbers On The Doors

Motor Racing is expensive; hideously expensive; so expensive beyond club level motor racing, virtually every car which is put onto a race track becomes a mobile billboard. The thing about having a mobile billboard doing 200mph is that in order to communicate the message of the brand who happens to be paying the bills, it all has to be done fairly efficiently.
In a far off smoky past, the most memorable liveries put on race cars, were provided by the tobacco companies who had their logos and colours writ large across these modern day chariots; with all the subtlety of an egg being struck with a sledgehammer (see Horse 1349).
The thing is though, it isn't just the various tunes of whoever happens to be paying the piper which is memorable. Sometimes, the drivers themselves become like a sort of brand; with their own personal number being on display.

This year, Formula One got around to assigning personal numbers to drivers which they will have for their entire career. MotoGP has been doing this for a while now, with Valentino Rossi's 46, Marc Márquez' 93 or Barry Sheene's famous 7. In Australian Touring Car racing, Dick Johnson ran 17 for many years and Peter Brock continued to use 05 long after the Victorian Department of Transport stopped their association.
The way I see it, it makes perfect sense that a number is part of a driver's personal brand; which is as marketable as anything else. Since motor racing is (and let's be brutally honest about this) more or less gloriously pointless, it then becomes a matter of telling a story; stories are memorable if we see the same characters over and over again.

To that end, I don't understand why a billboard which is moving at 200mph needs to relegate what could be a marketable thing, to the status of a small yellow blob in a side window. Whilst money talks, does it really need to yell so loudly that you can't even tell the difference between two identical cars?
NASCAR in the United States learnt this trick years ago - make the numbers on the doors and the roof sufficiently large enough so that you can actually identify who is who. When two dozen fast moving objects go past, all roughly the same size and you can tell which ones are which, then surely that seals the argument doesn't it?

This is why I now present the following exhibit:


In all three cases it's obvious from far away what the numbers are. If your intent is to communicate a message as quickly as possible, then why not do that. While we're at it, why not make the liveries nice and simple as well. The reason that people remember good logos and designs is because they often only have a few design elements. The fact that the Nissan, which is the bottom of the three, is able to ape something which still lives in the memory 30 years later is because the original colour scheme was nice and simple. If people can at best remember only about ten things at once, why force them to do so?

Do something simple and concise once and people will remember it forever. That works equally as well for logos, corporate brands and even something as obvious as putting big numbers on the doors.

September 06, 2014

Horse 1749 - Taxation Law - Et Cetera, Et Cetera, Et Cetera!

Taxation law is hideously complex.
The reason for this isn't because law makers like complex legislation but rather that they are always a few steps behind people who are constantly inventing schemes in order to get out of paying it.
Famously one of the slogans of the United States Revolution was "No Taxation Without Representation" though more properly expressed, the actual motives of practically everyone in the world ever are just the first two words: "No Taxation"

People do not want to pay for anything if they can get away with it. Two of the most delightful words in the English language are "Free" and "Cake" in that order and this underlying principle explains the rise of file sharing websites and the like but I digress. People don't even like paying something, even when what they happen to be paying for is the overall stability and cohesion of society except in very rare circumstances:
"I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization."
- Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

Taxation systems should be designed in such a way that it is predictable, both in time and amount; that it is collectible, and that it isn't burdensome. The biggest issue for taxation legislators is the problem of collectibility and making sure that it is collected. Remember, people do not want to pay for anything if they can get away with it and exacting taxation from such people is often difficult and is itself expensive.

Just to illustrate the problem of collectibility, let's start with the example of one of my personal pet peeves - motor expenses and deductions.
The general principle of whether something is actually an expense and therefore deductible is laid out in Section 8 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997:
http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/itaa1997240/s8.1.html
General deductions
(1)  You can deduct from your assessable income any loss or outgoing to the extent that:
(a)  it is incurred in gaining or producing your assessable income; or
(b)  it is necessarily incurred in carrying on a business for the purpose of gaining or producing your assessable income.
- Section 8.1, Income Tax Assessment Act 1997

This sounds simple enough, right? Expenses should relate to the income being generated. That's fair, reasonable and sensible.
Immediately our problem that people do not want to pay for anything if they can get away with it, rears its head and they start looking for ways to game the system. "My car expenses are necessary for my business," they'll whinge. Firstly, you have to see if that's actually true.

Travelling from your house to work isn't (and shouldn't be) deductible because income is generated at work and so it doesn't really matter where you live. Where you live either through choice or necessity  is your own business. I know that it sounds harsh but is it really fair that in effect, you ask everyone else to subsidise your trip to work just because you live far away?

Motor expenses incurred in the course of doing work should be those incurred in the course of doing work. If you travel from worksite to worksite, either as tradespeople or salespeople, then there is a very strong case that those expenses are incurred in the course of doing work; it's certainly stronger than the case for those people who work in the same office all day long.

What about those salespeople and managers? Even this starts to get really complicated. There is a stronger case to be made that tradespeople who drive a ute or a van, are going to be using that vehicle in the course of their work, than for salespeople and managers who are more likely to be driving a luxury car or a sports car. Those kinds of cars are more likely to be used for private use and sorting out which is which, might be something which they like to forget to tell you about.

The thing is that you can't even impose a material test upon usage, on the basis of kilometers driven either. A bread salesperson might visit ten different supermarkets in a day whereas a builder might be relatively static on one worksite.
Suppose you do decide to  impose a material test upon usage on the basis of kilometers driven, how do you test it? Where do you get the figures from? If you tell people that they need to keep a logbook, what's to make sure that those figures are truthful? Do the tax collectors have to then do audit checks of all the logbooks for proof?

You can't suggest some minimum number of kilometers that need to be required to be driven either. What about farmers? A manager's car which is driven from office to office might very well travel ten or even twentyfold the number of kilometers driven by a farmer's ute or tractor our in the fields.
If on the other hand you try and impose some sort of maximum number of kilometers, then what about those people who drive more than that? Haven't you just penalised them? If there is some maximum number of kilometers, then what's to stop everyone from simply using that as a figure?

What about other associated costs? What about car washes and cleaning? Someone who owns a Ferrari is more likely to claim that as a necessary expense because they want their car looking nice. There might be an expectation for a salesman to look impressive.
How about costs like spare parts and maintenance? A Ferrari is going to be more expensive to maintain than a Kia. Does this become a question of fairness? If it costs more to maintain a Ferrari than a Kia, haven't we in effect, just created a greater subsidy through taxation for the rich? Is that fair?

How about how motor expenses relate to personal income tax? Can I choose to have the business own and operate the vehicle in exchange for lower wages and thus lower the amount of income tax I pay? In answering that question, you immediately have to open a whole other set of questions with regards taxation on fringe benefits? If cars are owned and operated by businesses, again, how do you prove that they're not being used for private purposes?
Remember, people do not want to pay for anything if they can get away with it and in consequence an entire industry exists around the question of salary packaging and especially with regards to motor expenses.

What of other ownership costs? If interest on loans relate to buying the vehicle, should they be allowed as an expense? What if the car is under a leasing arrangement? What if that arrangement is between the business and an employee?

This sort of line of questions must inevitably result in rules, clarifications and qualifications surroundings those rules and this is only for one kind of expense!
Mutliply that sort of questioning across a range of industries, then do it for capital gains, then do it for gifts, asset ownership arrangements &c. and in doing so you need to create loads and loads and loads of rules just to cope with all the et ceteras.

People who do not want to pay for anything if they can get away with it are constantly looking for exceptions and loopholes and devising schemes so that they do not have to pay; this is especially true of the finance industry where the amounts of money to be saved by not paying are immense.
In consequence, all sorts of questions get asked like:
- Is a Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit?
- What sort of tax is payable if a chicken is cut into pieces, or roasted, or both, before it is sold?
- What is a sheep?
- What are the appropriate rates to depreciate assets?
- What about tax that I've already paid on income earnt overseas?

It's enough to throw your hands in the air in exasperation and run around like Yul Brynner in "The King & I" with his "et cetera, et cetera, et cetera" and then finding et ceteras multiplied by et ceteras.
Taxation law is hideously long and complex because it needs to be. If everyone is gaming the system all the time and actively inventing ways to get out of paying it, then it must require being added to and rewritten all of the time and in doing so, it will always lag behind people's new schemes.

Taxation law if anything is et cetera factorial. It is the ultimate &c!

September 05, 2014

Horse 1748 - Is the United States Bill of Rights Obsolete?

On a forum that I visit which happens to be about motorsport of all things, the following question was posted:
So you are saying that the United States Bill of Rights, part of the original amendments to the Constitution, is totally obsolete?
This question wasn't directly posed at me, though I think that it warrants investigation.

The oldest law currently on the statute books which is still in force in Australia is part of the Statute of Marlborough passed by King Henry III of England in 1267. Under the doctrine of reception and subsequent Statute of Westminster Adoption Act (1942), laws which affect the Commonwealth of Australia, remain in force until they are repealed or replaced. The Distress Act (1267) which forms part of that Statute of Marlborough, makes it illegal to seek recompense for damages through other means than the courts. In other words, don't take the law into your own hands.
This proves in principle at least that just because laws are old, doesn't mean that they are obsolete for that reason. Even though the word has changed significantly since 1267, in the 747 years since, people have not.

With respect to the Bill of Rights, firstly I think it strange that even before a piece of legislation became law, they needed to be tacked on to the end. The US Constitution should govern how the government is to be run and this seems to me to be almost unrelated. Secondly, I rather like the idea that under common law principles, people are disposed to do as they see fit unless hemmed in by legislation.

I think that the best way to tackle the question of the supposed obsolescence of the United States Bill of Rights is to got through each of them one by one.

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The United Kingdom has the Church of England as the official state church with the Monarch as head of the church and patron. This is probably a leftover of a strange state of affairs when Henry VIII wanted a divorce, Rome wouldn't give him one, and so he set up his own church with himself in charge so that he could.
The House of Lords also has within its chamber, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, which again are a left over from the time when the church, the barons and the King all ran the country in a merry triumvirate dance to an ancient rhythm.
America though was a mix of Puritans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans &c. and there was no way that in 1789 that it could even consider having a state church. It would have been a political nightmare.
There's also the rather pointed fact that the clergy perhaps aren't as business savvy as businessmen and career politicians. Politics has often been likened to a bear pit and one wonders if a meek and mild shepherd, would last long. This is compounded by the fact that any church's first job is to be ambassadors of their religion and their God/god/s or lack thereof. This isn't to say that the church shouldn't have a voice in parliament but I'd suggest that the elected members should better accurately reflect the people that they purport to represent.
The argument for so called separation of church and state I think is quite weak because the House of Lords as an august institution has proved if nothing else that sometimes, legislation desperately needs a conscience but by the same token, the separation state and church is more important because the state really should have no business in how churches operate or impose restrictions or prohibitions on the free exercise thereof except where real harm may come to people.

The right to free speech I think is pretty fundamental to a society but again I draw from one of my favourite cases in Australian law:
http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/UKPCHCA/1936/4.html
"'Free' in itself is vague and indeterminate. It must take its colour from the context. Compare, for instance, its use in free speech, free love, free dinner and free trade. Free speech does not mean free speech; it means speech hedged in by all the laws against defamation, blasphemy, sedition and so forth; it means freedom governed by law."
- James vs Commonwealth of Australia 1936

I do think that people should have the right to say pretty well whatever they like and be judged upon that basis. Whilst I also think that there is no right not to be offended by free speech, there is also no right to force someone to consume your free speech and it is on that basis that I think that censorship of harmful material is a perfectly sensible outcome.

The right to assembly and and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances is I think, pretty fundamental to a working democracy. Granted that police have a duty to maintain public order, but I still think that the whole right to protest and even as we've seen this week, occupy public space peaceably, is also important.

Amendment I - Tick

Amendment II
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

America which was a series of British Colonies already had the right to bear arms, some 87 years before the founding of the United States itself. The Bill of Rights (1689) has this to say:
http://www.legislation.gov.uk/aep/WillandMarSess2/1/2/introduction
That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law.
- Bill of Rights Act (1689)
"Protestants" at English law had already been determined through other legal determinations to include all subjects.

Given that America was a fledgling nation, it made sense at the time that a militia would be needed to defend the nation. The problem is that in 2014, the whole entire first half of the amendment is more or less totally ignored and only the last part is ever properly considered.

Granted that in Federalist Paper No.46, James Madison does talk about the militia standing in opposition to the standing army and that the United States Armed Forces still actually do compromise one twenty-fifth part of the number of the United States' population, I'm pretty sure that neither Madison nor Jefferson who was largely responsible for the Constitution and Bill of Rights ever foresaw the use of machine guns and high-powered rifles in the hands of a largely unregulated rabble.
It really makes me wonder whether the words in the 1689 act of "suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law" are actually more compatible with a society which changed from being largely rural to urban.

Is the right of the people to keep and bear arms even necessary to the security of a free state any more? If not, the question becomes one of utility and fitness of purpose. Just because something happens to be is permissible, allowable and lawful does not mean that it is expedient, profitable or good.
If the law itself is not fit for purpose, then what happens but the selfishness of mankind comes fully into display; the law though consequence and operation must soever be a Bad Thing.

Amendment II - Fail

Amendment III
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

This is where most students of United States Constitutional Law will gloss over because (and let's be perfectly honest about this) it is patently dumb.
The Third Amendment though, sits in context with the Quartering Act of 1774 which required that  British troops should be accomodated wherever necessary, including in people's private homes.

This is one of those things which should have been in separate legislation or simply put into a Repeal Act. Instead this now hangs in a treasured place in the Bill of Rights but everyone is too scared as a dormouse to remove it.
In 1776, this made perfect sense but now it just sort of looks idiotic.

Amendment III - Fail

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized

General warrants to search for stolen property were apparently relatively easy to obtain before the advent of a modern police force. The power of entry into people's real property via the instrument of a general warrant came into serious disrepute when then then Prime Minister John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, was attacked in a satirical newspaper called The North Briton. The publisher, a John Wilkes MP, was arrested, had his house searched, paper seized and charged with sedition and libel all on the basis of a general warrant in April 1763. Forty-nine people were arrested in raids across London in connection with the case but Wilkes was later convicted and spent 22 months in prison.
Mostly Wilkes was arguing over the freedom of the press and the right to publish the transcripts of parliament and eventually governments were forced to back down on the issue.

In the age of the pamphleteer, small run monographs were being written and circulated much like the internet and blogs of today. This required the use of printing presses and so naturally, governments who didn't particularly like things being written against them, would have like the idea of using a general warrant to search and seize property.
The Fourth Amendment with the advent of modern policing also protects against police simply entering premises with similar nefarious intent as the people of oh so long ago. This is useful and fair.

Amendment IV - Tick

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

This amendment says several thing. It that "infamous" cases shall be tried in a Grand Jury, it introduces the concept of double jeopardy at law and protects individuals from being forced to incriminate themselves. It also sets about to protect people's property with due process.

This amendment is compact and does in a few sentences which would normally take reams of legislation should do. The problem is that it exists in a Bill of Rights, where it should be held in the main body of the constitution itself as limiting clauses on the powers of government.
This is an otherwise excellent piece of law.

Amendment V - Tick

Amendment VI
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Like the third amendment, this particular amendment states what should be obvious. I note that Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution requires defendants be tried by juries and in the state in which the crime was committed; and so I really wonder why most of this was here at all. This belongs in The Department Of Redundancy Department. If this was removed, no-one would even know of its passing.

Amendment VI - Fail

Amendment VII
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

This is fairly self explanatory except that $20 in 1789 probably buys the equivalent of $100,000 now, Either the framers deliberately allowed for inflation, such that the dollar amount required to have a jury would gradually decline in real terms or they intended to review it. Most of this makes sense apart from this little detail.

Amendment VII - Tick - but mostly pointless

Amendment VIII
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Students of law in the United States might argue that because Guantanamo Bay isn't technically US soil, that the Eighth Amendment doesn't apply there and so cruel and unusual punishments have been inflicted there and without reference to either the Fifth or Sixth Amendments.
Having said that, this should be upheld and the fact that the United States chooses not to in some cases isn't the fault of the law but the enforcement of it.

This was pretty well much lifted verbatim from the Bill of Rights Act 1689:
That excessive Baile ought not to be required nor excessive Fines imposed nor cruell and unusuall Punishments inflicted.
- Bill of Rights Act (1689)

This amendment requires interpretation as to what cruel and unusual punishments are; which might be subject to change but I still think that that's the job of courts anyway,

Amendment VIII - Tick

Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

If there was no specific Bill of Rights, then this provision under common law would be absolute. Under common law principles, people are disposed to do as they see fit unless hemmed in by legislation.
I think that the fact that the Bill of Rights exists at all, limits people's vision and blinkers their thinking to the extent to what is written down instead of allowing people to be free unless their actions cause harm to others. The Ninth Amendment is what Mill's "On Liberty" discusses at length in the third chapter. The amendment is bad because it exists but the intent is possibly the mos important of the ten,

Amendment IX - Tick

Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Mostly the actions of this clause have been by the States, passing legislation to hack away at the Federal Government's power. Article Six, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution provides that Federal Law is the supreme law of the land but states have still taken legislative action to protest against what the Federal Government is doing.
This is mostly pointless but the states would kick up a stink at its passing; so it has to stay.

Amendment X - Tick

My Answer to the question:
So you are saying that the United States Bill of Rights, part of the original amendments to the Constitution, is totally obsolete?
Not totally.
Some of them are pointless, one is archaic, one is barbaric and the rest are fine.

Actually in compiling this, I think I've come to the conclusion that a Bill of Rights is monumentally foolish. I think that even having a Bill of Rights detracts from the position of parliament as the people's representative when it comes to the making law, by placing more power into the hands of unelected judges. If judges are elected, then that politicises what should be impartial positions; which is precisely what happens in America.
Not having a Bill of Rights is probably a better solution but in the interim, they still require a clean up but US politics being such that it is, ensures that that will never happen.

September 04, 2014

Horse 1747 - Just Des(s)erts

On particular publication which shall remain nameless* remarked that in a recent criminal case, the knave who had been convicted was getting their "just desserts".
Oh dear.

No doubt that you will remember from your primary school or high school English classes that there is a difference between "deserts" and "desserts" and that you should know that difference. The former is an arid place with very little rain and the latter is a nice sort of dish which is usually sweet and usually comes at the end of a meal.
"Just deserts" when taken to mean an arid place is patently absurd, as is "just desserts" which seems to imply that a tasty confection is the proper reward for finishing one's meal**.

No, "just deserts" are getting what one deserves; where "desert" is the singular noun which comes from the action of deserving. The fact that they are just stems from some reckoning against a moral standard or compass.
If there are "deserts", then are there "preserts" from the verb to preserve or "conserts" from the verb to conserve? If not, why not?
Wildlife conserves speak to me of the act of putting animals in jars; given that I have seen Ram Jam, Ham Jam and Lamb Jam on sale, perhaps I'm not as stark raving bonkers as I first suspected.

The thought had crossed my mind of "Des' Desert Dessert Deserts" as some sort of reward of confection for performing some act in an arid place but without any context, I couldn't tell you if Des was handing out the reward or if he was noble enough to receive them.

Three Little Kittens who had found their mittens after previously losing them, were also apparantly deserving of pie, though as cats can not taste sweet, it doesn't make sense that they would be given desserts as just deserts***.
If I walked into a bakery looking to buy pie**** and I found just desserts, I would be well disappointed and the proprietor will have curried my disdain. They would curry my favour by selling me a pie of a similar ilk***** and their just deserts would be to have silver cross their palms.
Mind you, I am now confused about the Christmas Pie which Little Jack Horner was eating whilst he was sat in the corner. Silver sixpences and shillings were regularly snuck into plum puddings and Jack, who was a self-proclaimed "good boy" found a plum in his Christmas Pie. I don't know if his just deserts came out of a dessert or not.

On the train as I was scribbling away I noticed that a few seats over, a lady was tapping away on her tablet****** and playing Candy Crush Saga. I don't really know anything about the game other than to say that just looking at its saccharin sweet colour scheme is enough to induce diabetes amd I assume that based on its name, that there's no delicious savoury meats in that game at all; just desserts.
Curiously, the fact that I can scribble such marshmallowy fluff on the basis of just two words as inspiration, probably proves that in my mind, there aren't just deserts*******.

*I don't want to quote just two words.
**There may be an argument if the meal in question happpens to include Brussels Sprouts, as they are little green balls of terror; harvested from Hades' Half-Acre.
*** Nor is it explained how Mother Cat cam to be in possession of said pie either.
**** Your expectation of what kind of pie, shows off your cultural biases.
***** Or Elk, if we are again talking about wildlife preserves... in jars.
****** Which is too bitter a pill for me to swallow; also too big.
******* I'll leave the interpretation of those two words to you, dear reader.
******** This is certainly too many footnotes to be sensible*********.

********* And also enough to say that if you have read this far, you are getting your just deserts**********.
********** Ten Stars! If I cash them in, maybe I can buy some Christmas Pie from the perfect purveyor of pies previously mentioned.
*********** Please sir, I want some more.
************ MORE?!

September 03, 2014

Horse 1746 - It's Australian But It's Not Super

I am 35 years old, which means two things:
a) that I am too old to be distracted by the passing parade of soap stars, music idols and so-called reality TV, not to know when I am being taken for a ride¹.
b) not old enough to be in a position of income or management or political power to do anything about it.

I think to think myself as being born in that glorious age which thanks to the economy throwing wage earners off the back of the train (the year I was born) and dragging us along; whilst hoping that we end up getting bloodied and bruised to the point where we're going to die (and soon), that I happen to be right at the beginning of an entire generation who can look forward to a future standard or living which is actually worse than our parents.
Hospitals, schools, universities, telecom systems, roads, railways, water, gas, electricity generation have all either been or are going to be privatised; thanks to a diet of right-wing baby formula which no-one but the rich can either digest or afford.

Yesterday, saw another smack in the face for people who have already had their teeth knocked out.
In the negotiations which saw the Mining Tax repealed, the previously legislated increases to superannuation were also kicked further down the tracks. This is perfect for those people who are already making use of what amounts to tax-free incomes right now, employers who no longer have to pay as much into their employee's super funds but terrible for those people for whom retirement is still decades away (if it is even going to exist by then).

Firstly, I've always thought that retail superannuation is a giant con. To make real increases requires that all fund managers to better than the market average and this is patently absurd. Secondly, fund managers are recompensed for their hard work of moving one bunch of numbers from one screen to another by collecting a percentage of the funds - this means that they cream off the top when funds generally are doing well, and gouge out real capital when they are not.

The real tragedy though is the fact that pushing back previously legislated increases to superannuation means that the benefits of compound interest from even 0.25% over a thirty year time frame, are not passed on to superannuates. Short-term "savings" for employers now might mean a worse future for their employees later.

The thing is that we were sort of warned about this sort of thing when Dr Ken Henry led his taxation review, which when to publication in 2010.

http://taxreview.treasury.gov.au/content/downloads/final_report_part_2/AFTS_Final_Report_Part_2_Chapter_A.pdf
The retirement income report recommended that the superannuation guarantee rate remain at 9 per cent. In coming to this recommendation the Review took into the account the effect that the superannuation guarantee has on the pre-retirement income of low-income earners. 
Although employers are required to make superannuation guarantee contributions, 
employees bear the cost of these contributions through lower wage growth. This means the increase in the employee’s retirement income is achieved by reducing their standard of living before retirement. 

The effect of this reduction in a person’s standard of living before retirement is likely to fall most heavily on low- to middle- income earners who are unlikely to be in a position to offset the increase in the superannuation guarantee by reducing their other savings. However, it has been argued that the benefits from improving a person’s standard of living in retirement offset the effect of the decrease in their standard of living before retirement.
- pgs108-109, The Australia's Future Tax System Review (Henry Review) 2008

I further look at this with abject terror when I consider the rhetoric concerning cuts to pensions coming out of politics now and wonder what we'll be seeing in thirty years time. By that stage, it will be assumed that people will be relying on superannuation; which provides even greater reasons to consider abandoning pensions altogether.

According to AWOTE² figures, wages in 2013-14 wages increased by 2.6% whilst at the same time the Consumer Price Index suggest that prices increased by 3%. In real terms, this means that the average wage went backwards.
Personally, my wage rose 0% and now that superannuation increases have been pushed back, I won't see those increases either. Just looking at an average rate of growth at 4% (which is a good rate since the end of the Roman Republic in 27BC) I estimate that I'll be put of pocket personally to the tune of $103,000; that's a tune which the piper is handsomely paid for and I really really hate the song. The chap who said that poor people don't drive cars is now ensuring that my super is being stripped to the value of five good cars.

I imagine that in the world of 2053 when I 'retire' at the age of 75, that due to wage competition in Asia and then Africa, real wages will not only be going backwards but actual dollar wages will do as well. I can see us all merrily sleepwalking into a world similar to the 1830s³ and if the conclusions of Thomas Pikety are anything to go by (where the rewards on capital will continue to accelerate faster than the attributable rewards on labour) then I can also imagine a world of social discord as well.
The poor plead for mercy, but the rich answer harshly - "Please let us back on the train" No.

¹Double Negative.
²AWOTE - Average weekly ordinary time earnings https://www.ato.gov.au/rates/key-superannuation-rates-and-thresholds/?page=38
³http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/livinglearning/19thcentury/overview/poorlaw/

September 02, 2014

Horse 1745 - The Five Greatest Inventions Of All Time (Maybe?)

There was a television program on 7Two during the week called "Inventions Which Shook The World". I found some of it quite surprising to think that many of the devices we see just about every day were invented so long ago. I think that it's fair to say that the century in which the world changed the most during the period of 1800-1900, when the foundations for the industrial world either came to fruition or were initially laid down.
It got my mind ticking over about what constitutes the greatest inventions of all time and to this end, I'd like to suggest five:

1. Electricity
Whilst electricity is a natural phenomenon, it is the generation, transmission and harnessing of that power which I think is important.
Whilst the light bulb might have scraped away at the darkness where once only the feeble lights of candles and gas lamps struggled, electricity itself does so much more than merely turning night into day.
To this point of the day, I've switched on and off several lights (none of which actually were filament bulbs), taken a shower heated by electricity, boiled water in an electric kettle to make coffee, taken milk out of a cold refrigerator powered by electricity, walked in the twilight of electric street lamps and travelled on an electric train and you are reading this on a device which is also powered by electricity.
The story of electricity is really the story of power. Electricity basically changed the world from a coal and wood burning place to a coal, gas and nuclear burning place with the generators being far away, rather than in the things they power. Fire driven engines such as trains and stoves and steam engines which powered the wheels of industry, have practically all been replaced by much larger engines which produce power from hundreds of miles away; even the wheels of industry themselves have in many cases been replaced by virtual wheels, thanks to computers. Where once typists, accountants and record keepers occupied great rooms in businesses, a whole host of them have been replaced by a quietly humming set of electronic brains in boxes.
Even the two 'essential' services that we would like to be hooked up to our homes, are the water and the electric. Especially in the last decade, we have shown that we do not necessarily require telephone lines any more but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would choose to live in a modern house with no electricity; this is in stark contrast to even a century ago.

2. Bricks
I am perfectly aware that buildings can be made from stone, steel, glass, wood and fabrics but I think that it's fair that the vats majority of buildings which have a life-cycle of more than about 60 years, are all built from bricks (or at least most of the good ones).
Living in a yurt sounds kind of neat for a while and whilst it's true that I live in a fibro house, I honestly don't see it surviving much beyond the year 2030. Lost of buildings have been made from wood in the past too but wood isn't really any more an invention than steak is.
Bricks allow solid, warm buildings to be built without the need for vast numbers of stonemasons. Bricks can be made on-site or carted to a site with far more ease than dressed stones ever could. Granted that skyscrapers are for the most part made from steel and concrete but it's still worth remembering that great buildings can be made from bricks - the Chrysler Building which is 77 storeys tall, is a brick building with a steel structure.
Concrete and steel though, aren't exactly the sorts of things we tend to build peoples' homes from. Unless you happen to live in a very large concrete estate, the buildings we mostly live in which are smaller, are all built from brick.

3. Numbers
Science as a pursuit of knowledge isn't exactly an 'invention' per se but rather, a long line of incremental advances, which all stack on top of each other. Mathematics as a science does have important advances such as calculus and imaginary numbers and the complex field but underpinning all of these is a little invention which is different in concept to mathematics - numbers.
Counting is something which the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Chinese &c. all did. Counting is important if you want to take stock of what exists in an empire and if you want to exact taxation and tribute from your citizens and subjects. However, doing maths and counting very large things with Hebrew, Greek or Roman numerals is both tedious and difficult.
I find it interesting that some Aboriginal languages for instance have no words for numbers greater than about six, beyond the vague concepts of 'little mob' and 'big mob'. I also find it completely bizarre that French which you'd assume is a relatively modern language, doesn't have a word for seventy, eighty or ninety and chooses to call them sixty-ten, four-twenty, four-twenty-ten (soixante-dix, quatre-vingts and quatre-vingt-dix).
In the fourth century AD, Indian mathematicians invented a positional decimal system, which we call the Hindu–Arabic system. Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi wrote a book in about the year 825 called  "On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals" and these numbers spread to Europe during the middle ages.
I would suggest that the importation of these numbers, probably helped to fuel the renaissance and the enlightenment. Science itself wouldn't be as useful without a written abacus with which to perform mathematical gymnastics which is needed for calculation, extrapolation and recording of data. Numbers are the ultimate tool which hammered science into shape.

4. Writing
In 2007, Sherman Young wrote a book called "The Book Is Dead, Long Live The Book" which stood as a marker point, declaring another milepost in the death of publishing. Yet it's existence helps to prove my point here.
Writing carries out two extremely important functions. Firstly, that information is recorded, stored and disseminated; secondly and in consequence, that ideas live well beyond the moment that they were created in and even beyond the lives of their creators. I can still read the works of Suetonius, King Solomon, Cao Xueqin or Charles Dickens and all of those people are as dead as the dodo. Furthermore, I can know that there even was a dodo, having never seen one because someone wrote about them and drew them.
Up until the invention of the phonograph in 1877, the spoken word was ethereal dissolved like a snowflake into the air itself. Thanks to writing, we have access to the words, thoughts and ideas of people from hundreds and thousands of years ago.
The nuns in "The Sound of Music" may have asked the questions of 'How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?' and 'How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?' but the answer is ludicrously simple - writing. I could tell you the story of Jack Weatherspoon who caught a cloud, then grabbed a moonbeam and used that to lash the cloud to a lamppost, in the name of publicly ridiculing the cloud. Yes, the idea sounds idiotic but now that I have committed that idea to text, it's no longer an ethereal thing which disappears forever.

5. The Wheel
This seems horribly incredibly clichéd to include the wheel in a list like this because it's not like I'm breaking any new ground at all (in fact I'm not with any of this piece). Really, the lever, wheel, inclined plane, screw, wedge and pulley were already acknowledge by scientists in the  Renaissance as the six classical simple machines. All of them are about magnifying the force inputted into a system by a mechanical advantage factor. The wheel though is of specific cultural importance.
It is the wheel which improves the loads by which humans, beasts of burden and even other machines can pull and carry by lowering resistance due to friction. Wheels allow the use of carts, carriages, trains and weapons of war derived from these. Wheels also drive the internal mechanisms of devices which further improve the loads and efficiencies of devices.
Wheels also serve as symbols of power. The chariots of the Canaanites were very formidable to the Israelites who were scared of them and chariots and carriages themselves required horses and oxen to pull them. It was the Iron Horse which helped to open up the world from the 1820s onwards and wheels within machinery are what drove factories to increase production of every sort of manufacture many millions of times over.
As entertainment, Roman chariot drivers earnt winnings which make modern sports stars look feeble. 'Scorpus' who drove chariots in the late 80s and 90s AD won ridiculous amounts of money and Gaius Appuleius Diocles who drove in the 2nd century AD reported won almost 36 million sestertii, which would work out to be about US$15 billion today. Fernando Alonso who drives for the most famous motor racing team in the world, Scuderia Ferrari, is only paid about €20 million a year.
Even during possibly mankind's greatest achievement of the twentieth century, landing on the moon, what did NASA do on their fourth journey? They sent a car up there.

Cars, Trucks, Trains, Chariots, Carriages and even Ezekiel's shopping trolley which had wheels within wheels and went wherever it felt like, have enamoured us for a long time. Apart from air and sea travel, it is wheels which opened up continents, drives products to markets and allows people to journey to new places.

This list of five great inventions is so obviously feeble that it fails to describe much at all, however I think that in principle, they shook the world harder than any of the devices in the television series. Concepts like agriculture, science, politics &c. however important they are, I don't know if they constitute an invention.
If you'd like to disagree with me, then please feel free to do so. Argument and the pulling apart of ideas is both fun and interesting to do but remember in doing so, you will have to reply in writing, using a computer which uses electricity, which is generated by a power station which has turbines driven by wheels. Maybe this is a a semantic self-referential paradox but it's still fun to think about.

September 01, 2014

Horse 1744 - Hunting Unicorns

Whilst listening to the Test series between England and India, a comment on Twitter mentioned that there are unicorns in the Bible (such is the nation of Test Cricket that side discussions often have nothing to do with the at times dour performances on the pitch).
I'm hardly a scholar by any stretch of the imagination but the thought seemed patently absurd to to me; so absurd in fact that it must have been correct because you don't make up stuff like this. Lo and behold, a search for the word 'unicorn' turns up nine matches¹. What is going on here?

Being the annoyingly curious creature that I am, I decided to check the Hebrew for these and find that the word that is consistently being translated by the King James Version as a 'unicorn' is the Hebrew word רְ אֵ מִ ים  or 're'im' which comes out in English 'auroch' which was a bovine type of animal (in the same family as cows), the last of which died in 1627. They are now extinct.
This sets up another question. Why did the translators who compiled the King James version of the Bible, choose to use a word which seems so strange? I suspect that the answer to this lies in the fact that the language of 1611 is also a very different animal to the one we now speak a little over 400 years later. This seems to me as though what on the face of it appears to be some sort of mistranslation, wasn't at the time.

The story of the King James Version or more properly the Authorised Version is itself quite complex and is set into an equally complex period of time. Elizabeth the First of England had died; leaving behind no children and so James the Sixth of Scotland became James the First of England as well.
Elizabeth's father Henry the Eighth had exacted a purge of Catholic monasteries and churches, following his own disagreements with the church in Rome and within a year of becoming King of England, James set about commissioning a new Bible in English. This was also set amidst a political environment which included the Gunpowder Plot which was an attempt to blow up the King and the Parliament.

This new version which was more or less demanded by puritan factions within the Church of England, was translated from Greek for the New Testament, and from Hebrew and Aramaic texts for the Old Testament. The fact that they took seven years from 1604-1611 to finally bring the text to publication, indicates to me that this was seen as highly serious work and further suggests to me that this was not a mistranslation for the time.

How do you write a new bible for a nation which at that stage was largely illiterate. Moreover, how do you explain concepts to people when they do not travel very far and more than likely, never travelled more than a hundred miles in their entire lifetime.
I think it interesting for instance that the entire of the King James Version uses only about ten thousand different words, whereas Shakespeare's works include about twenty-one thousand words. The there is the fact that the English language itself was in a state of flux and the translators deliberately chose words which at the time were slightly archaic to try and counteract this.
It is also worth bearing in mind that in 1611 there probably wasn't even a standard dictionary in use. 'A Dictionary of the English Language' by Samuel Johnson, didn't appear until 1755, which was still a gross of years away; even then his dictionary isn't necessarily and attempt to define words but rather to describe them (sort of). What is a dictionary anyway? Should a dictionary be proscriptive and say what should be, or descriptive and tell what already is?

Words are funny. There is no 'lead' in a lead pencil. A 'Jerusalem Artichoke' does not come from Jerusalem and neither is it an artichoke. 'Kiwifruits' come from China. When Sherlock Holmes proclaims to Watson that 'the problem is most singluar' he does not mean that there is only 'one' problem. When you go to the fridges in the newsagent for an ice cream a 'Golden Gaytime' has considerably different connotations to when it was released in 1959. I have even overheard youths on the train refer to their new 'kicks' as being 'fully sick' and 'awesome' at the same time and that to me conjures up a mental picture of a very large lake of vomit.
Think about this. A Bicorn is the sort of thing that you'd find on the head of Napoleon and a Tricorn can be sometimes found on the head of Jack Sparrow. I own a Cheese Cutter, a Bowler, a Pork Pie and I would like to have a Stovepipe. Have I made my point by now?

The translators group in 1604 was probably looking for a word to stand in place of a 'thing with horn/s' which was in common usage, in a language which at the time was still not standardised even from region to region upon that sceptred isle and had to be readily understood by everyone. A 1604 'unicorn' is almost certainly not the same as a 2014 'unicorn'; which by now has come to settle on something quite specific.
Probably in 1604, their 'unicorn' encompassed a large group of horned animals which upon reflection also included rhinoceroses, which are served very well indeed by that name.
Proverbs 30 for instance contains a word which even in modern English is either rendered as a 'hyrax' or a 'rock badger', a word which thanks to Hebrew's lack of vowels could either be a spider or a lizard and a phrase which is kind of uncertain.
The word 'bull' is used 155 times in the New International Version. Here's the really odd thing though: male cows, seals, alligators, buffalo, whales, gnus, elephants, moose, chinchillas cats, reindeer, could all be properly be called 'bulls' and yet in common usage, when we talk about being 'gored by bulls' everyone knows what you are talking about unless you talk about herding them.

Almost certainly and in the spirit that the comment was made, this was a point of trivia as if to say "ooh look, isn't this interesting?" but equally there are people in the world who would use something like this as a point of ridicule.
I think that questioning everything is a noble pursuit; even more noble though is to bother to find out the answers to those questions because merely asking them without caring what the answer is, is altogether pointless. Despite this, posterity will serve Him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!

¹https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=unicorn&qs_version=KJV
²https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?qs_version=NIVUK&quicksearch=bull&startnumber=26

August 31, 2014

Horse 1743 - The Islamic State - Over Before It Started

Laying aside morality for a moment and the utter barbarism of laying people to waste for no discernible reason that I can fathom, the Islamic State (inasmuch as it can be called a 'state', which I don't think that it is yet) will need to establish three things before it can properly live up to its self proclaimed; incorrectly described epithet. Those three things are:

1. Legitimacy
2. The Rule of Law
3. Provision of Public Services

1. Legitimacy
Suppose that the Islamic State does eventually form some semblance of statehood or transforms into something closer to that of being a nation; even if it does achieve those ends via the means of the Kalashnikov, it still needs the consent of those people which it intends to govern.
Empires of old including those at their most brutal like the Romans or the Mongols and even the British, all learned that although you could subjugate peoples and even force them into slavery by the use of brute force, to actually go about the task of governance requires the tacit support of at least some kind of organisational structure, even if it is a military one.
Usually this is done by the use of military force which acts as some form of de facto martial police force. Whilst the Islamic State has proven itself very effective at taking territory and conquering people, I'm not sure if it has even proven itself capable of doing much else yet. Even the Taliban in northern Afghanistan did show that for a while it was capable of at least a passable degree of governance even if it was savage in doing so.

2. The Rule of Law
If you were to take a survey of all the laws enacted by governments, then apart from those which govern the physical standards of things (like weights, measures, voltages &c.) then pretty much the rest of all laws hinges on property rights and responsibilities; those being the rights as they relate to rights and responsibilities as applied to one's person and those relating to property that can be owned, both real and intellectual.
The rule of law is the principle that it is the legal framework and the laws as enacted which should govern a nation and not the whim of government officials, kings or kaisers. If kings and kaisers should feel themselves above the rule of law and declare that they have some divine right, then history has proven time and time again that it has interesting ways of eventually making them submit to it.
Again, the Islamic State hasn't even looked like it has even thought of any real overarching cohesive structure apart from a top-down sort of self proclaimed theocratic absolute monarchy led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. If it wants to achieve any sort of lasting effect, then this will need to be rectified or else face descending into splintered anarchy.

3. Provision of Public Services
This is going to sound really dumb to anyone not familiar with Afghan politics before 2001 but the Taliban had actually established things like schools and marketplaces. The problem was that under the Taliban, the regions of Afghanistan which they controlled were run by 'jirga' which presumably ran like Pashtun tribal councils. The Taliban did not hold elections as they felt that political process itself was in opposition to sharia law.
The problem with the Islamic State is that if they decide to run their caliphate anything like the Taliban did with the regions of Afghanistan that they held, then it will be marked by a notable absence of state institutions; this hold distinct problems. People expect to live in places that have access to even basic provisions like water and maybe electricity. I seriously doubt how or even if the Islamic State has even thought about how or if it is going to set about making policy to do with the provision of public services. If it decides to do nothing, then that is highly likely to cause angst and unhappiness, which potentially could plunge the whole thing into a desperate rabble and general civil disorder is likely to follow.

All governments face those three issues and most civilised nations get about to answering them in one way or another. Failure to do so, usually results in a failed state.
Curiously the NGO think tank the Fund for Peace characterizes a failed state as having the following characteristics:
- Loss of control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein
- Erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions
- Inability to provide public services
- Inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community

Apart from the last of those four, they marry up with what I've just described. The problem is that the Islamic State if it isn't actually a failed state already is a violent non-state actor and that in itself is still cause for concern.

August 28, 2014

Horse 1742 - Monkey Selfie Is Malefic Monkey Business

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/monkey-selfie-officials-rule-nobody-4088663
It was an hilarious picture which was shared around the world but also caused one of the year's most complex legal issues.
When this cheeky monkey took a selfie on a photographer's camera, it led to questions about who owned the copyright - the monkey or the snapper.
But now the US copyright office has finally made a decision, judging that neither hold any rights.
It has ruled that any work created by an animal does not belong to them or anyone else. This also includes plants, nature, divine or supernatural beings.
- Anthony Bond, The Daily Mirror, 22 Aug 2014

Dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Whilst I suspect most people will look at "Monkey Selfie" and think that this is amusing, I think that this is a terrible miscarriage of justice and sets a very dangerous precedent.
The US copyright office has now basically said that when an animal takes a photograph, copyright can not be claimed by the person who went to the effort of setting up the equipment which enabled the photograph to even exist in the first place.

Although it should sound obvious, a Professional Photographer derives their income from the sale of the images they produce; those images require effort to produce. Copyright in principle is about making sure that artists are compensated for that effort. The production of art in general as with anything requires effort, be that physical or intellectual or otherwise, in my opinion should be duly rewarded for that effort.
The issue surrounding Monkey Selfie, stems from the fact that Wikimedia unilaterally asserted because the photograph which had originally appeared in a Daily Mail article was the work of a non-human animal, then copyright could not vest with a legal person; as it could not vest with a legal person, it fell into the public domain.
What I think that this says is that Wikimedia has asserted that Mr Slater doesn't deserve to be paid for his work, despite the fact that he set up a photo shoot and owns the camera equipment, and that's bad. This also sends out a strong price signal over the value of photographs.

- apparently I am legally allowed to use this, as it has fallen into the public domain

Economist Friedrich Hayek described a "price signal" in his 1988 work "The Fatal Conceit" as something which communicates the value of something via the mechanism of changes in prices. If something is valued at zero, which is the net result of declaring something to be in the public domain because no economic rights can be derived from it, then you may as well copy something which is worthless.
The free market establishes one thing and one thing only - price. The free market does not establish what is morally or legally right. It was the free market incidentally which determines why someone in Bangladesh can be paid $4 a week to make clothing; in conditions that are unsafe. People if they can get away with it, will want to pay nothing for everything.
The problem with paying nothing though, is that is doesn't compensate people for their effort and in effect, doesn't put food on the table; doesn't keep the rent collectors or the utility companies from the door.

In this case, I am very much reminded of the opening few words of the old Clause IV of the British Labour Party:
"To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry..."
Is a labourer worthy of their wages? Why shouldn't the fruits of labour come to those that labour?

In that Daily Mirror article I quoted, Mr Slater's complaint is pretty well much that sentiment.
"It makes me very angry, I'm a professional photographer - it costs me over £2,000 to do the trip. It's my livelihood.
You take 20,000 shots to get one image that sells, it was potentially a good earner for me, I've lost over £10,000 because of it."
- Anthony Bond, The Daily Mirror, 22 Aug 2014

I'd even further suggest that this sends a very strong message to professional photographers: DO NOT under any circumstances give your camera equipment to anyone else. Never let an animal take another selfie ever again.

Linky things:
The Sulawesi Macaques who took this: http://www.djsphotography.co.uk/Tropical%20Forests/Sulawesi%20Macaques.htm
David Slater's Website: http://www.djsphotography.co.uk/

August 27, 2014

Horse 1741 - Euthanasia - Human Dignity?

Imagine for a second that the year is 2024. In the August election which has just been held, the government led by former Prime Minister Penny Wong was defeated 79-71 by incoming Wyatt Roy's Liberal Government; which also has a friendly Senate.
Medicare it is argued is too expensive to continue and the Medicare Australia Act 1973 has been repealed.

In this brave new world of market driven health care, hospitals are looking to lower input costs to drive profits even harder. In this new legislative environment, the rate of patients suddenly being euthanised has skyrocketed. How did this happen?
Back in the day whilst Tony Abbott was still Prime Minister, the Euthanasia and Patient Consent Act of 2017 proved fairly easy to pass with both sides of the chamber declaring it a triumph of "human dignity". Patients "right to die" was extended in Commonwealth legislation for the first time.

Of course the "right to die" is supposed to be safeguarded with a legal instrument of consent or via a Power of Attorney but as we all know, these things in practice are incredibly easy to obtain; both in periods of calm and chaos in peoples' lives.
Suddenly a legal instrument signed five years ago and mostly forgotten, has all the importance of a Presidential Order and all the force of an express train meeting an egg at 100mph.

It is curious, that mainly poorer people are being euthanised. One of the consequences of a market driven system is that price looms as a very large factor in decision making. Poorer people who have less market power and less of an ability to pay very large bills, can be more easily coerced into giving their "consent".
It is also strange that people who face bankruptcy as a result of expensive medical bills, also find it easier to give their "consent" to being euthanised, thus creating a bankrupt estate, where not even creditors can chase any more.

Does this sound far fetched? Remember, it is only a few short steps away and the Law of Unintended Consequences isn't very far away either.

Admittedly my moral compass is informed by my Christianity. I just don't think that anyone has the right to take a life; not even their own. It seems to be that given human nature, in every single circumstance where there is the capability to abuse the system, someone invariably will. Introduce the factor of profits that can be increased by simply eliminating expensive patients and amazingly so called "human dignity" dissolves in the wake of economic necessity.
When even death itself can be reduced to the status of a cost driver, the concept of human dignity becomes a nonsense.

In my line of work, I frequently see instances where someone has been coerced into doing something, which they never would otherwise intend to do. Once a contract or a legal instrument has been signed though, it is often difficult to show that duress has taken place or even that the terms of a contract are unfair because it is often easier to prove that there has been a reasonable degree of consent applied.
In the case of euthanasia, where someone would probably require signing a legal instrument which would end their own life, to later go back and show that duress or unfairness existed, all seems rather pointless after someone is dead.
Again, to argue about "human dignity" also seems pointless after someone is dead, irrespective of whichever God, god, gods or complete lack thereof you happen to believe in. It should be obvious to all that with euthanasia, there is no "undo"; the decision is irreversible.

John Stuart Mill in "On Liberty" (1859) said that:
"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."
I think that the argument against euthanasia, even against some people's will, is to prevent harm to others. Does it really promote "human dignity" to reduce some people to the status of an input cost?
That world of 2024 I described is only a few pieces of legislation away. I don't want to live in that world. I hope we never ever get there.

August 23, 2014

Horse 1740 - Rollo's Challenge to Film & Television Makers

I have a challenge for the film makers and the makers of television programs because I want to see if what I propose can actually be done anymore; for curiosity's sake - that is, can a blockbuster film or major television series be produced in the twenty-first century which is G rated, which isn't a "family film" and isn't "for the children"?
I don't suggest this because of some sort of weird moral crusade against the film and television studios, it's just that, I've seen a distinct lack of imagination when it comes to the kinds of film and television which is being produced, which is on some sort of cycle of becoming darker and edgier to the point where it's all just quite a bit hokey and banal.

At the bus stop where I change from the train to the bus on my morning travel as a cut-lunch commando commuter, I happen to stand outside on of Sydney's biggest cinema complexes. I took a quick survey of all the films which were on the current roster and found that there was currently showing:
G rated - 1 film
PG rated - 2 films
M rated - 6 films
MA rated - 3 films
This means that the average age rating on a film currently on show in Sydney this week is age 14. 14 isn't quite M rated but is does mean that or 75% of films, you couldn't actually take a 14 year old in to see them.

Obviously this is all an economic decision on the part of movie makers. They're only likely to produce films which will return a profit and so from that perspective, it all seems perfectly understandable to me. The problem though is that the G and PG rated films which are usually on offer are so predictable and puerile, it makes me even wonder if said 14 year old who could get in to see the rest of the films, would even want to see the remaining three.
Although Tom Lehrer in the 1960s said that "smut, is a market that you can't glut" and whilst I might find myself ever increasingly offended by what's on offer at the cinema, I'm in a small minority and they're not likely to miss my dollars any way but when cinema turnover peaked in about 2002 and has been on the slide ever since, maybe there might be something to be made of my challenge here.

Just what is on offer at the cinema anyway? More superhero stories? Crude comedies that are poorly written? The twenty-first century equivalent of kitchen-sink dramas?
Where are the modern day equivalents of "Dial M for Murder" which was basically a film set in three rooms? Where is our twenty-first century "Citizen Kane"? In an age of political corruption and deadlock, how come we don't see a new "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"?
The basic stories are always there; there's constant inspiration being generated, why is it so very hard to produce intelligent films these days, which would still be remembered in 60 years' time. When the people of the year 2074 look back, will they remember the films of 2014? I doubt it.
This isn't even a rant about things "being better in my day" because (and let's be perfectly frank about this) in my day, which is now, the films ARE rubbish. I want better quality writing and more intelligent film making. Are the audiences of 2014 really so stupid that the film makers should treat us all like dolts?

There's your challenge. Make for me just one film in the next 12 months which is rated G and is smart enough, or funny enough or brilliant enough that I can take my grandchildren to.
Why can't we have nice things?