Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Letters to the Editor

The new owners of The Compass (our weekdays newspaper) have announced that it won’t publish any more anonymous letters, either online or in print. From some time next week, writers must use their real, verifiable, names.

It’s a significant change. Putting one’s name to criticism of any government action or inaction risks being victimised. Many individual Civil Servants and politicians have the power to destroy any private business in the Islands: we all know it and they all know it. They will still have the Cayman News Service (CNS) “bloggers” to worry about, but The Compass will carry almost no letters critical of the authorities.

The new owners promise that the paper’s editorial line will be rather less obsequious than hitherto. If that happens, the readers will gain on the swings what they will lose on the roundabouts. Work Permit expats, especially, have never trusted The Compass to keep their real names secret, so they will go back to their traditional boycott, and continue to express their opinions only on CNS. Permanent Residents, too: “Permanent” does not always mean “permanent”, in Cayman. The Immigration Monster invents its own definitions when it wants to, or is instructed to.

I well remember the day the boss of the Immigration Enforcement Unit came to my house in full uniform, with a uniformed chauffeur, to deliver a formal notice from the Immigration Board that it was “minded” to cancel my Permanent Residence. Oh dear. The content of some of my recent newspaper columns had upset the ruling politicians of the day, and my continued presence in Cayman had been deemed “not in the public interest”. The Enforcement Unit was reminding me, and the watching public, that its duties included acting as a political police-force.

Three earlier blog-posts of mine (*** see below) have reported the fuss that followed the attempt to deport me, and have noted the likely damage to Cayman’s overseas image. An international finance centre whose “offshore” professionals are forbidden from telling the truth about Cayman’s regulatory regime? How bizarre. Check my Archives, if you will.

It’s embarrassing to have to confirm each year that our local rulers’ suppression of free speech is as determined as ever. Since we are a British colony, we must conclude that the suppression is UK policy, too. Since the GCHQ (equivalent to America’s NSA) monitors every email within Britain's jurisdiction, wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage every dissident to put his thoughts down in writing? You would think.

Ah well, what can you do? Cayman is a very comfortable place to live, as long as you close your mind to a few unsavoury government policies. Exploiting unskilled migrant workers is one of them, standing by while boat-people drown is another, censorship by intimidation is yet another. The Immigration Department is the instrument by which those three policies are enforced.

No Work Permit expats are reckless enough to sign their names to any public letter, except on the most innocuous of topics, and few citizens either. Since all local businesses depend on Work Permits, they must strive not to get on the wrong side of the Immigration authorities or any of the clerks.

The number of “unprotected” individuals (those without political influence) who sign letters critical of public policies and practices can be counted on two hands. Of foreign-born citizens, one hand. The Compass’s new policy will severely ration Letters to the Editor, when it comes into effect.

Well, who am I to object? This blog of mine doesn’t publish comments, either. It’s a vehicle for my opinions, nobody else’s. Newspapers and news-websites are vehicles for their owners’ opinions – mainly, their opinions on what news to print and not print, and what slant to put on it. That’s just the way things are.

*** Freedom of Speech, October 2011; Telling the world, May 2012; Confessions of a subversive, October 2012

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Unfinished business (infinity, and all that)

This is the third and last summary of the Saturday breakfast meetings of an engineer (my Canadian friend Gerry, who died last month) and an auditor (me, alive but moving gingerly).

Setting one morning’s agenda, I asked: Does infinity exist, outside high-school maths and the circumference of a circle? The Meeting agreed unanimously that the scope of the debate be limited to logic alone – no physics, no astronomy, no obscure scientific theories of any kind. We were two old codgers at a buffet breakfast, not a pair of academics trying to score points by quoting peer reviews.

Being the only professing linguistics expert present, I ruled that we must accept the literal definition of “infinity” – namely, “without end or boundary”. My ability to spell correctly and to remember Latin roots put me in the Chairman’s seat. No argument there, then.

Gerry argued that there could be different sizes of infinities. An infinite number of cows would weigh more than an infinite number of mice. Hmf! I pointed out that the weights could be measured only when the counting stopped, and that “infinity” meant it never would stop. As a backup, I pointed out that infinity is beyond numbers; it isn’t itself a number.

Next: can parallel straight lines ever meet? Again we argued the definition, noting that “define” comes from the same root as “finite”. As an engineer, he couldn’t conceive of a straight line that never ended, never mind two of them in parallel. Maybe the creator of the universe wasn’t an engineer, Gerry; maybe it was a philosopher, or an artist. For Gerry, those were even less conceivable than an endless line.

Is the universe itself finite (very, very big) or infinite (endless)? Is it eternal, or will it just last for a long, long, time? How relevant is the Big Bang theory? In an infinite universe a Big Bang might be a single pulse-beat in an eternity of pulse-beats. In a finite universe, it would have to have been an act of magic. The only astronomers who get worked up about it must be those whose universe is finite.

Some day, they believe, they will discover one or more of the finite number of boundaries to the universe. Some day, their space-probes will go over the edges. Or, the probes might knock up against an invisible wall, like Jim Carrey did in his boat in that movie. [The Truman Show]

But if the universe is truly infinite, we speculated, our Earth might well be just one of an infinity of Earths created every split second since time began. (Not that it ever did begin, of course...) If so, which Earth are we living on? One of the infinity of Earths on which Jesus died for our sins, or one of the other Earths, where he didn’t? We’ll never know – at least, any time soon.

If the universe is truly infinite, then time travel will be feasible – once we redefine “time travel”. The problem of what’s called “the grandfather paradox” is immediately resolved, because the grandfather you shoot exists on a different Earth, and it doesn't matter that you don't get to be born. It's not your this-Earth grandfather, and the man with the gun is not your this-Earth you.

Gerry and I struggled to stay on the path. It was, and is, easier by far to be like the astronomers and base our speculations on a finite universe in all four dimensions – just a very big place that would last a very long time, with only one Earth and only one future, and with alternative universes left to the pages of science fiction.

Who cares if the value of pi can be measured only to ten gazillion decimal places? Does it matter that the area of a circle can’t be calculated exactly? Not really. The world has gotten along pretty well with approximations, so far. A finite universe may mean that the decimal places of pi will come to an end, some day. If not, then maybe infinity really doesn’t exist outside high-school maths and the radius or circumference of a circle. That seems a bit limited, for a limitless function.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Broadening the mind (foreign living)

Travel is supposed to broaden the mind, though it doesn’t always. Most expats return home greatly changed by their exposure to foreign cultures and peoples. Even a week in someplace exotic is better than a week’s vacation taken in one’s home community, or even one’s home nation, necessarily. But a couple of years – ah, now we’re talking.

Even a minimal two-year stint allows an expat to get out and around – to explore his temporary home, and maybe some of its neighbouring countries. Even hanging around with other expats provides exposure to other cultures and ways of thinking.

The greater the variety of expats, the better. A major reason why Linda and I made Cayman our home in 1981, after our standard three-year stint here, was the variety of nationalities our young son could mingle with. From age two to age thirteen when he went off to boarding school in England, he mingled with a mind-broadening range of English-speaking children from several parts of the world. And even the boarding school was pretty international.

His Cayman chums were mostly British, because we his parents gravitated towards British expats. But his friends and acquaintances included US Americans, Canadians and a rich variety of Caribbeans, including ethnic Caymanians. In our earliest days, the total population of this tiny Island was below 15,000, of whom only 5,000 were foreign; now it’s 50,000, of whom 35,000 are foreign born.

The exposure certainly steered Ross towards becoming an expat himself. In his twenties he lived in Mexico as an immigrant, immersed in the local middle-class culture. Next came Guatemala, mixing with US and European hippies. The hippy trail led to Peru and Ecuador, and one special woman and her baby daughter lured him to Norway. There he became an immigrant again as the father of (by then) two small Norwegian-speaking girls. 

Oslo is full of expats, all of whom are strongly encouraged to speak Norwegian. Rumour to the contrary, all Norwegians do not speak English. A blog-post of mine last year (The weather in Norwegian, July 2012) reported Linda’s and my embarrassing failure to bond with one of Ross’s in-law families, for want of a language in common.

At our wedding in Toronto in 1967, only two of our twenty guests were Canadians. Linda’s Bridesmaid was English, my Best Man was South African. Australia and New Zealand were also represented. A few months later we set up home in Bahamas (Lunching with the stars, January 2013), where most - though not all - of our friends and workmates were expats.

In Perth, Australia, we met mostly expats or former expats. In New Hebrides (Aiding and abetting adultery, November 2012) we socialised with expats from England, Australia and New Zealand, and shared the tennis courts with Frenchmen and the cricket field with Fijians (When the clock struck four, October 2012).

The Internet has greatly expanded access to foreigners of all nations. There are discussion forums galore, carrying the opinions and experiences of English-speaking expats and natives in and of almost every nation in the world. Most of them cling stubbornly to their tribal outlooks, which is both disappointing and surprising. Tribal loyalty still trumps the notion that “people are people”.

The belief in “my country, right or wrong” is not compatible with an open mind. How could it be? I’m always sorry to see the belief surviving in expats, who really should know better.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Parrots of the Caribbean (noise pollution)

“Noise pollution” is a common complaint in society these days, isn’t it? Neighbours can be taken to court for rowdy parties, and for too-loud domestic arguments. Most take-offs and landings at city airports have to be scheduled outside specified hours, in order to allow residents to get a decent night’s sleep. Even here in this tiny Caribbean island.

Our house is a couple of hundred feet underneath the thrice-a-day “bombing runs”, when most of the Island’s flights arrive. Planes land and leave against the prevailing wind, so we don’t get the racket both ways, but still... All conversation has to stop for thirty seconds during each pass. We’ve gotten used to it, though, and we don’t get too many visitors around those times of day.

The neighbours’ yard-dogs are more of a noise-pollutant, and they really do bug us. Those hypersonic 9-volt gizmos don’t work for all types of barking. The big black dog’s deep baying falls away to a whimper, but the Alsatian’s high-pitched yelping persists until I use the hand-held hypersonic whistle – and that’s not convenient in the middle of the night. So I yell at it (the dog), which doesn’t help with the noise-pollution problem much at all.

Some of our local wildlife is silent, some not. Snakes are silent, and rats, and lizards. Stray roosters aren’t. The hens and their chicks have all learned not to cluck and cheep in our yard, which is interesting. Silent, they can scratch around in Linda’s gardens and compost-heap without being noticed. Why didn’t the roosters learn too? It’s they whose crowing brings me striding out to shoo everybody away. Further evidence (as if any were needed) that females are smarter than males, regardless of species.

There’s supposed to be poverty in Cayman, but you wouldn’t know it from the number of stray hens wandering about. And they’ve all got chicks, so nobody’s even stealing the eggs! Filipinos barbecue the odd bird, but not often. Latinos eat iguanas, but not enough. I’d like to see more Chinese and Korean migrants, because of their dog-eating propensities, but no such luck.

Wild parrots eat some parts of our trees that the iguanas pass up. The parrots – usually vivid green or vivid blue – must be the most beautiful parrots in the whole Caribbean. Yet they have the ugliest cackle in the world, when they’re feeding on the nuts up above my bedroom window in the early mornings. Beauty and ugliness – nature’s balancing act.

I was brought up with quiet, in the bush. Sheep don’t make much noise, and sleep all night. The cows begged loudly for relief at milking time, but they were too far away to wake us kids up. We had dogs, but Dad’s ear-splitting whistle (hypersonic?) was enough to send them into their kennels without a murmur. If I could whistle like Dad, I wouldn’t get so upset by our local yard-dogs, I guess.

We all have our favourite hates. My friend Bob once shared a London bed-sit [studio, for American readers] with a fellow who ate grapefruit in the middle of the night, in the dark. The audible eating was bearable, just, but Bob swore he couldn’t relax until the ritual was fully complete. Only then could he drop off again. The climax occurred when the chap finally gave a huge sigh of satisfaction (Aaahhh!) and reminded himself in wonderment, “God, I love grapefruit!” Every single time, every single night.

Speaking of pet hates... It’s a Sunday afternoon as I type this, and the wretched ice-cream van has just begun its standard twenty minutes of driving up and down the neighbourhood while playing an incredibly annoying five-second jingle. On the whole, I’d rather listen to the bloody parrots.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Election 2013 – changing faces

The other week, 85% of Cayman’s 18,000 eligible voters voted in our first election since 2009. The 18 elected Members of our home-rule Legislative Assembly comprise nine from the spendthrift PPM, three from the wasteful UDP, and six unaffiliated and so-far uncontaminated. We were relieved to get rid of the UDP, but wary of their replacements.

The first thing the new Premier said was, “We will spend more money”. To which the British FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) replied, “Come to London and we’ll talk about it”. Britain has enough of its own national debts without allowing one of its nano-colonies to incur more. Two years ago Britain put a freeze on new borrowings by our local populists; she’s not likely to bend on this issue.

The second thing our new Premier said was, “We will not fire any government workers, no matter how useless”. (Well, I made up the last bit, but it’s a given.) He didn’t assure us he wouldn’t raise taxes and the local cost of living.

Either wage-levels will rise to compensate, or fewer migrants will bother to come here. Fewer migrants would reduce our economic activity, and produce less tax revenue. Already there are 3,000 Caymanians registered as unemployed and refusing to participate in the labour market at current wage-levels.

The third thing the new Premier said was, “We will force the private sector to hire the unemployables”. That would tighten government’s existing stranglehold on the private sector. Already we are burdened with a regiment of Soviet-inspired state commissars who monitor the hiring, firing and promoting of all employees – and even intra-company transfers. Forcing another 3,000 reluctant workers (mostly unskilled) onto private payrolls will make local businesses’ even less efficient than they are now.

At a time when major Western nations’ obsession with offshore tax-havens is at full throttle, it’s open to question whether Cayman can survive another four years of irresponsible fiscal management. Britain imposed a “Framework of Fiscal Responsibility” a couple of years ago, as a desperate last resort, but our local dons will ignore it whenever they can.

The objective of the Framework was to force our local politicians and Civil Servants to balance their annual budgets, reduce their Public Debt, and establish a cash reserve to provide for the unfunded pensions and lifetime medical care of our bloated and rotten Civil Service and its dependents. If the FCO clerks can maintain their focus for long enough, all will be well. If not, not.**

Last month’s election changes nothing. Corruption is endemic, and increased numbers of bureaucrats being paid from the Public Purse to run their families’ private companies won’t change that. The doctrinaire protectionism of ethnic Caymanians will only get stronger and more permanent.

 A mass-grant of citizenships in 2003 released thousands of immigrants from their indentured bondage, while generating bitter and lasting resentment among ethnic Caymanians. Since only ethnics may stand for election and (in general) be appointed to government Boards, the quality of our governance will continue to suffer from the exclusion of long-term immigrants’ experience and expertise.

The Economist magazine last month (28th May edition) quoted me as saying, “The real problem is not sagging revenues but public-sector profligacy”. What I actually told the writer over the phone was, “There is far more money flowing in to government’s coffers than they can sensibly spend. So what they do is piss it away.” Weasel words cannot hide the reality.

** Last September I posted a blog titled “A day late and a dollar short” that deplored the FCO’s Attention Deficit Disorder in respect of its colonial obligations.