Thursday, 29 November 2012

Spectacles

I do not think I have ever lost a pair of spectacles in my garden. I always find them eventually. I have got  much better at searching; my eyesight weakens but my strategy improves. The other night I searched, with a torch, in the dark and in the rain, over and over in the places where I had stooped, or bent double for extended periods. And next morning I found the spectacles 7 miles away in North Seaton!! (where I had left them on the tea tray after recorder playing). Yet still I go on looking, as I have got used to the idea now of them being lost.

L. Cawstein
cawstein@gmail.com

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Ash die-back

Ash die-back

There is a lot in the news at present about the appearance of ash die-back disease and its threat to the health of our British woodlands. There are a number of interesting points raised.

The pathogen

The pathogen is often identified as Chalara faxinea, an ascomycete fungus. It then turns out that this is simply the vegetative form of a fungus known as Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus  in its sexual and spore-forming phase. It is the spores produced by the latter that attack the leaves and stems of our ash trees; and so far this sexual and thus spore-forming phase of the pathogen H. pseudoalbidus, has not been identified in Britain. So, though confusing, there may be some point in having two names for the same genetic species. [1]  We shall continue to be attacked from across the sea, but there is just a faint chance that we can escape full-scale infestation if the sexual phase fails in Britain.

The source

As of 16th November [2] there are two types of infected site in Britain: [a] woodlands, [b] nurseries. Woodland sites where infection has been noted are confined to the east coast, and focussed on East Anglia (though spreading northwards to Northumberland and Fife). The strong impression is that spores are blowing in from Northern Europe. The nursery sites are dotted around the whole of Britain, wherever there is a nursery unfortunate enough, or pathetic enough, to purchase stock from the continent. The saddest part of this whole story is the realization that this staple tree of the British landscape, a tree that can be found seeding itself all over our gardens, hedgerows and field-margins is being bought in from abroad because we are too lazy to produce our own seedlings for sale.

The weather

In general, fungal diseases need warm moist conditions for the germination of spores. Once the mycelium is inside the plant tissue, the atmosphere is a negligible factor in growth. My experience is that 2012 has been an outstanding year for high moisture levels during the 6 months of 'summer'. It would be a relief if the whole question of Ash Die-back disappeared with a fine dry summer in 2013.

References

Two excellent websites provide information of considerably better quality than the common press and radio:

[1] http://treedisease.co.uk/threats-to-our-trees/ash-dieback/timeline/
[2] http://www.forestry.gov.uk/chalara

 

 

L. Cawstein
cawstein@gmail.com

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Programme Notes Nov '12

Lieder ohne Worte, Book 1, opus 19b      Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

1. Andante con moto;   2. Andante espressivo;  3. Molto Allegro e vivace;

4. Moderato; 5. Piano agitato;  6. Venetianisches Gondellied (Andante sostenuto).

This, the first of 8 volumes of short piano pieces, was published in 1832 without the title "Songs without Words ", but its companion (opus 19a) was a set of six songs with words. The famous soubriquet may have originated with Felix's older sister Fanny (who also wrote similar pieces). The 6 pieces in Book 1 were composed between 1829 and 1830 by the 20 year-old; 4 years after the magnificent octet and Midsummer night's dream overture. (In 1829 Mendelssohn also conducted the first performance of the 'St. Matthew Passion' since Bach's death, and made his concert debut in London.) These short tuneful pieces became very popular with the piano-playing public, and the concept of Songs without Words was adopted by other composers. (Alkan produced 5 books of "Chants", each ending with a barcarolle in further homage to Mendelssohn.) These pieces were not meant to suggest words; the music (as Mendelssohn explained) is not too ambiguous for words, but too precise; they resemble songs musically in having a strong melody presented over a (usually) rippling accompaniment.

Estampes ('Prints') L.100 —— Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

i. Pagodes;  ii. Soirée dans Grenade ;  iii. Jardins sous la pluie

Estampes is French for 'Prints' — as in 'Japanese prints'.  These, in Japan, fell so far out of fashion as to serve as wrapping paper for the export of other goods to Europe, but on arrival in France excited artists to a craze of Japonisme. Critics have described Debussy as an impressionist composer, and, though he disliked the term being applied to him, it is hard to avoid when he gives titles like Pagodas and Gardens in the Rain to short piano pieces. If he is not explicitly imitating the sound of rain, perhaps he is evoking the mood or "impression". These Estampes (number 100 in Lesure's chronological catalogue of 141 works) were written in 1903, in the middle of Debussy's middle period; after his successful opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and before La mer and Images. While his private life remained outrageously Bohemian (his deserted wife attempted suicide in 1904), his musical style was maturing; his abandonment of classical harmonic rules and invention of new juxtapositions of notes are distincive features that simultaneously attract his admirers and repel the others. (Steinway's 'sostenuto' (or 'sostenente') pedal suspends only those dampers that are raised when the pedal is pressed. The effect is far subtler than the muddy blur achieved with the sustaining pedal, even when 'half-pedalling'.)

 

Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante (opus 22)    Frederyk Chopin (1810 – 1849)

Chopin's short life almost exactly overlapped that of Mendelssohn. He left Warsaw in 1830 to seek fame, carrying with him some Polish soil in a silver cup, but was outraged in 1831 at the Russian invasion, and never returned. Though his father was French, Frederyk never spoke French fluently, and wrote his diary in Polish. After Chopin's death his sister carried his heart back to Poland. The Andante Spianato in G major (spianato means smoothly) was composed in 1830 while Chopin was still at Warsaw Conservatoire. Its intense sadness is broken by a chordal section, almost recovers, but ends on gentle chords. The grande polonaise brillante (in E major), was also begun in Warsaw in 1830 though finished in Vienna in 1831. It was an entirely separate piece, in a different key, and is for piano and orchestra. (The polonaise is by way of being Poland's national dance; formal, strutting, pompous, it was traditionally the opening dance in student balls.) Three years later, in Paris, Chopin played the Andante Spianato as a piano introduction to the Grande Polonaise. In1836 both were arranged for string quartet, and only in 1838 was today's piano arrangement of the combined piece made.

 

Sonata in A major, (D. 959) —— Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828)

i. Allegro; ii. Andantino; iii. Scherzo (Allegro vivace); iv.Rondo (Allegretto)

This is Schubert's second last piano sonata, or so it would seem from the Deutsch catalogue. In 1828, besides working on the string quintet, the Swanengesang songs, and a Mass, Schubert was writing 3 piano sonatas simultaneously; in C minor, B major, and this one in A major. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schubert's_last_sonatas for a very full analysis of Schubert's 3 last sonatas.) For more than a century the consensus seems to have been that Schubert's formal sonatas were not his best piano works. Schubert offered them to Probst who turned them down and it was Diabelli who first published them in 1839. In this A major sonata both the outer two movements are unusually long at 15 minutes and 11 minutes respectively. Though Schumann (in 1840) coined the phrase "heavenly length" as a compliment, Tovey in the nineteen thirties criticised precisely their length and spoke of  "mere repetition". Here, the finale perfectly illustrates Schumann's point, for the wonderful melody is welcomed with the same joy every time it returns. But repetition and "heavenly length"  are clearly part of Schubert's intention. Throughout the work, recognition of the many recurring elements is very rewarding. For one example (though there are very many), the crashing chords of the opening are remembered at the climax of the slow movement; and the work ends where it began, with those same fierce chords; perhaps tying the work into a unity, or perhaps an invitation to go round again, like the pins on a barrel organ.

 

L. Cawstein
cawstein@gmail.com

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Positive Money 2

Positive Money 2

"Do we need a Clarity in Banking commission (CBC)?"

A major flaw in our British (and American) financial systems is that credit has been offered recklessly to "sub-prime" borrowers. Bankers do this because it brings them reward without penalty (from the consequent debt default). Three remedies suggest themselves: (1) Control or limit the ability of banks to offer credit; (2) restore the penalties for bad lending by allowing bank crashes; (3) decrease or remove the incentive for excessive lending. Most of the talk in the media has been about the Vickers Report's "Ring Fencing", or separating (somehow) what they call the "High Street" side of the business from the "Casino" or Investment banking. (Vince Cable is said to favour ring fencing.) However, not enough detail and no clear mechanism has yet emerged [Lovegrove, Out-law.com]. (What assets are inside, what outside the fence? To whom do the assets belong? What ratio  of capital/assets is suggested — 10% or 20%? How high is the fence? How can a "high street" bank be legally and financially independent from its "parent bank"? We cannot even stop "independent" banks from mutual back-scratching!)  Positive Money (PM) is a pressure group advocating a reform of the banking system in this country. Together, Richard Werner, the New Economics Foundation, and Positive Money have prepared a lucid and comprehensive submission [Ref.1] to the Independent Commission on Banking that would meet two of these three remedies. Their submission advocates a clear separation of the two types of banking; considerably more drastic and more clearly thought through than the Vickers white paper.

Two aspects of the Positive Money case against the present banking system cause considerable surprise: (1) the fact that 97% of our purchasing power (M4 or broad money) is virtual money not backed by real deposits and is created out of nothing, at the whim of the commercial banks, and (2) that the money we deposit in our bank is not our money, it becomes the banks' money and its product belongs to the bank. Of course, the banks are contracted to give it back on demand (with or without a notice period); but, while they have it, they can choose where they invest it. In the scheme developed in the Submission, the money in a customer's 'Transaction' (c.f. current) account remains the customer's money, it is 100% backed by real Bank of England deposits, it cannot be lent out, and it bears no interest.

The money that a customer wishes to bear interest they transfer to an 'Investment' account, whereupon it ceases to be their money, for a period. If customers wished all their spare money to bear interest, this system would not differ greatly from the present system. However, should a commercial bank find itself in difficulties with assets less than liabilities, it does not need (on this reformed scheme) interbank lending in order to honour cheques drawn on the Transaction accounts for they are all 100% backed. It is true that it might not be able to pay back all its customers' "invested" money, but investors would soon learn what fraction of their money to keep safe, and what fraction to lend out at interest. Such a 'bad' bank would lose customers, but could be allowed to fail; the day-to-day operations of the transaction account (shopping and receiving wages) could continue. The bank would not need a bailout. If a bank did go bust, it cannot lose the assets in the Transaction accounts, because they were never in the hands of the bank but were deposited with the Bank of England; in 24 hours these assets could be made available via an alternative bank.

This seems to me to be a real ring fence that separates high-street from casino banking. The Vickers' ring fence seems partial, the change in reserve ratio from 3% to 10% (or 20%) should certainly add some stability, while reducing 3-fold (or 7-fold) the amount of assets the bank could play with; but it is a half measure, and it leave the deposited money in the hands of the bank — as at present.

The remaining approach to reforming the banking system would be to tackle the question of the motivation of the commercial banks. Banks exist to take deposits, to make loans and to employ staff, not solely to maximise profit on shareholder capital. The customer wants a bank that can offer throughout the country the full range of online, telephone, and counter services and hole-in-the-wall dispensers. If a 'better' bank were to emerge on the high street that offered 100% reserve banking, would customers flock to join? Only (I suspect) if it offered all the rest as well, which means either a very big bank or some (enforced) co-operation between banks.

Also, but separate, there is a demand for small domestic loans, mortgage loans for house-purchase, and advice on investment and insurance. It is unfortunately clear that banking staff are not morally equipped to give impartial advice, any more than doctors are when their income depends on their advice; we have scandal after scandal about mis-selling of insurance, hidden commission, etc. We learnt on a recent Radio 4 "Bottom Line" [2] that Danish banks are better than ours at clarity, and that Dutch pensions yield 50% more than British pensions because of the lower commissions taken in the Netherlands.

Perhaps the country needs a Clarity in Banking Commission (CBC), something easily accessible like OFCOM, where complaints and queries are pooled and advice give. A better informed public would then force down fees, and force up quality.

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References:

[1] http://www.positivemoney.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/NEF-Southampton-Positive-Money-ICB-Submission.pdf

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006sz6t

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Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Interest and Usuary

Interest and Usuary

Here is an idea which, in my ignorance, I believe to be original. For decades I have wondered at the problem of distinguishing between Interest and Usuary. Ever since Sunday School I have understood that usuary is a sin, a position that Christianity maintained till the renaissance; till 1545 in fact, in the English-speaking world [1]. And it is a position maintained still by some sects and by our Islamic neighbours. But the taking of interest on lent money (as we happily do every day of our lives) is usuary, so where is the sin? Taking to much, perhaps?

It is a commonplace that high interest rates are regarded as justified if there is a high risk of default. But it has always seemed to me that, as the principal is paid back so the risk declines. Once the borrower has paid back a sum equal to the amount initially borrowed, the risk becomes zero. Not only does the present risk become zero (so higher rates of interest cease to be justified); the previous high rate of interest become unjustified as well (though initially justified). Current lending contracts are not framed in this way. Currently the lender sets a rate which remains in force even when the principal is repaid. In such a case, only Shylock would demand the letter of the 'bond', and call it justice.

So here is the idea. All interest in Britain should be fixed at bank rate, or (if you like) at 2% above bank rate. Anything above that must be regarded as repayment of capital. It is perfectly OK for a credit card company to demand repayment at the rate of 20% per annum, or 30% per annum if it likes, but when it has got its money back there is nothing more to pay, except the interest on the loan for the duration of the loan.

Suppose you borrow £100 at 20% (as on a credit card). If you pay nothing for 4 years, by compound interest your debt will have doubled. So pay £20 per year for 5 years. At that stage you will have paid £100, but the lender will say that you still owe £100, because you have only been paying the 'interest'. So instead you pay £30 per annum. It will take you 14 years to pay down your debt, and you will have paid a total of £420. That (I submit) is not interest but usuary. Were the rate set at 20% because of RISK (when bank rate is 0.5%), I argue that 5 payments of £20 should suffice to bring the risk down to zero, and therefore interest rate (for the whole period) down to something more like 2.5%. A further payment at that stage of £12.5 would suffice to settle the interest due (on £100 for 5 years at 2.5% p.a.).

A bank offering these terms would make less money, but would probably have plenty customers. Maybe this resembles Islamic banking practice.

L. Cawstein
cawstein@gmail.com

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Positive Money

Positive Money 1

"Is your money safe? Or is it being used by your bank for risky investments?"
Positive Money (http://www.positivemoney.org.uk/) has been tireless over the last 12 months in putting out its message that British banks need reforming. Their presentations focus on the surprising fact that 97% of the current supply of circulating money (broadly defined) was generated not by the Government, nor by our central bank (The Bank of England; which is a quasi-private company**), but by the major commercial banks — those hotbeds of irresponsible greed.
Rhetorically, that is a great move; it staggers the average reader. Even to a casual glance the system seems flawed. We want to know who 'owns' the 97%, all that virtual money typed into your current account when you are given a loan? And who benefits from it; you, the depositor, or the bank? But, on second thoughts,  what exactly is the flaw and what (therefore) the rememdy?
One flaw is that the decision to extend credit (create buying power) is in the hands of the "irresponsibly greedy". Bankers offer credit where they should not, because doing so brings them reward without any penalty from the consequent debt default. Positive Money's remedy is to take from the commercial banks the power to create money by extending credit.  Another remedy would be to contrive that making loans was less remunerative to the commercial banks (an idea I develop elsewhere). A third would be to return the penalty for bad debts to the place where the bad lending decisions were made (rectify risk-asymmetry, or 'moral-hazard' as it is comically dubbed). If it be the depositor that initiates the gamble called 'investment', then there would seems to be no requirement to make good his losses. However, if it is the commercial bank that chooses the risk and makes the gamble, then the bank should loose when the debts go bad. They should NOT receive a bailout from the state; perhaps a loan that will cripple the bank until every last penny is paid off.
Another flaw is that there is productive debt and unproductive debt; unproductive debt can never be paid back; except by using money from productive debt. (I have explored this distinction elsewhere, as have others). Unfortunately, unproductive debt (as in house purchase) often appears to the bankers as more attractive, because less risky. The mountain of debt grows ever bigger.
How (we ask) is the Positive Money remedy to be implemented? Their case is fully and clearly laid out in their submission (See: http://www.positivemoney.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/NEF-Southampton-Positive-Money-ICB-Submission.pdf), but that requires 2 hours of concentrated study, and then 10 more hours of debate. Perhaps they should develop the next layer of their argument in the form of explosive rhetorical slogans. What is wanted now is a stream of snappy one-liners like their point about money being 97% virtual, 3% real. Perhaps:
"Is your money safe? Or is it being used by your bank for risky investments (without your permission)?"
Who will push throught this reform?
Not the banks for sure. Nor perhaps the average citizen. We have got so used to free banking that we are likely to resent even a small fee. The expectation that banked money will bear interest is deeply ingrained in our society; we equate "banked" money with "invested" money. Shakespeare's clown, when given a penny asked: 'Would not a pair of these have bred, sir?' ". Sorry,  Feste my friend; it is not as simple as that. You must buy a hen, or a field, or some tools if you want 100 pennies to turn into 105 at the end of a year. Or your may let someone else buy the hen, but choose that someone wisely. With the Positive Money plan, banked money is safe, but does not breed; it will sink slowly in value with inflation. 'Invested' money, on the other hand, will rise or fall with the success of the venture; but on average should rise, a little. After 100 years of safe banks (Overend, Gurney & Co crashed in 1866, City of Glasgow in 1878), we came to assume probity and caution in our commercial banks. Alas!
So, who will want to keep their money in the safe bank where they will get no interest and will pay an annual fee; and who will want to lend their money to a 'safe' investment bank, and get interest at 3%, or 4%, or 6%, tempting the banks to offer ever higher rates.
It is true that stabilizing the money supply, increasing competition by allowing customers to swap banks easily, and restoring risk symmetry (eliminating 'moral hazard') are all aims that the government should wish to pursue if it can face down the banking lobby and the voting public. Let us hope.


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** The Bank of England, founded by a Scotsman in 1694, is to the Government and the commercial banks more-or-less what the commercial banks are to the man-in-the-street. For 300 years privatly owned and operated, it was nationalized in 1946, but given 'independence' in 1997; it is wholly owned by the Treasury Solicitor on behalf of the Government of the day, but its activites are under the direction not of the government but of a board of independent directors.

L. Cawstein
cawstein@gmail.com

Monday, 5 November 2012

Open Letter to Bashar al Assad

Dear Sir,

The world looks on in anguish as it sees Syria flounder deeper and
deeper into trouble. I wish I could offer my services as a negotiator,
for which I have only two tiny qualifications: [1] I have no official
position in any country, but [2] a small amount of training in
conflict resolution.

My starting position would be: [1] that Assad is still the only legitimate Head of Government of Syria; [2] that his claim to be the most widely accepted single figure on the political scene may still be correct. Though his popularity might well be below 50%, it is possible and even probable that no other single leader or party has the degree of support accorded to Bashar al Assad and the Baath party. [3] That therefore his present attempt to restore law-and-order should be respected; it is the duty of a government to maintain order.

However, it does seem bad politics (internally and internationally) to have resorted so promptly to repression and force as a means of bringing law and order to the country. That may be the method used in the past. That may have seemed the method most likely to succeed 12 months ago when the official military forces were all in the hands of the government. However, these are different times, even from 3 years ago. It is undeniable that a government of a country killing its own citizens signals a failure of government. It should be clear to all that the argument or point of view that commands the most emotional support inside a country is that one that should ultimately govern that country. It seems to many (especially in developed countries) that "asking the people what they want" is a safe way of finding which argument is the argument that will ultimately win. And would ultimately win if it came to fighting -- on a level field. It therefore seems (to many observers) that a mistake was made in not offering the people of Syria a vote.

That mistake alone does not make the present government illegitimate. Nor does it seem clear, to reason and logic, that the mistake is irreparable. Why not organize, even at this late stage, a popular vote? It might bring a temporary halt to the fighting. It might support the legitimacy of the Baath Party. It might offer an alternative route out of the conflict.

I would be grateful if you would consider this idea.

Yours sincerely, Cawstein.
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L. Cawstein
cawstein@gmail.com