Friday, May 31, 2013

The engineer and the auditor – part two

Not all our breakfast meetings were productive, Gerry’s and mine. There were many subjects that just didn’t lend themselves to give-and-take exchanges. Gerry wasn’t interested in the origins of words and names: I didn’t care how nuclear plants operated or aeroplanes were assembled.

But sometimes we found common ground in unpromising material. One day I asked, out of the blue, “How come dogs are so smart at maths?” Gerry’s eyes boggled. I explained. Catching a Frisbee requires a series of calculations involving aerodynamics, velocity, air currents and gravity. I was no academic slouch at school, but physics of any sort was beyond my grasp. Yet most dogs can catch Frisbees with ten minutes’ training, unless the wind is gusting. Instinct, or intelligence?

My dictionary defines the word intelligent as “quick to understand”. That rules me out; I’m a plodder. I can get from A to B well enough, but step by logical step. I have little of the intuition that would get me there quicker. Women in general are more intuitive than men, and therefore more intelligent, by my own and my dictionary’s definition – and yet they’re not better at catching Frisbees. Another mystery.

Gerry was intelligent as well as well educated, but he wasn’t always logical. My contribution to our discussions was an auditor’s scepticism and logic. He baulked at acknowledging dogs’ superior reasoning in the matter of Frisbees, because that would grant them the power to think intelligently. But intelligence isn’t an across-the-board quality.

Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” – an autistic idiot-savant – could think, though his capacity was limited. Dogs can think, though their capacity is limited. Thought doesn’t have to be taught; it’s a natural quality. I have a suspicion that trees think. Every time the rains are late, the Poinciana tree in our yard delays dropping her babies until the drought is broken. Isn’t that some kind of thinking? Come to think of it, she’s not bad at catching Frisbees, either. Hmmm.

In a later ambush I asked Gerry, “How come a salamander can re-grow a severed limb?” We extended the topic to stem-cells and their DNA wiring, and got several mornings of enjoyable argument out of the exercise. All life-forms’ respective DNAs are actually – he claimed – comprehensive computer-programs, each one tailored at the instant of conception. Wow!

People talk about the miracle of birth, but it’s conception that is the miracle. In the instant of conception a comprehensive program is instantaneously created (engineered, Gerry called it) that contains every single specific instruction necessary to grow the host and to maintain it throughout life, and eventually to age and decay it. Each sperm must contain half of the program, and the portion of an egg that it penetrates (not the whole egg), the other half. Nano-engineering on an infinitesimal scale.

Even more impressive, the program is engineered to remember each individual basic step, in case it’s needed later. We see this in salamanders and other lizards that can grow new tails that are exact replicas of the lost ones. Where else can the instructions come from except the original program?

We don’t see it in humans. And, salamanders can’t grow new heads. Maybe they once could – all those ancient legends of monsters that grew new heads to replace severed ones – but not now. Like all programs, DNAs develop bugs that can delete stored memories. The severed limbs of trees can grow back, but rarely out of the stumps. Some human amputees tell of being able to “feel” their missing limbs; their programs are presumably searching for the appropriate app – alas, in vain.

The best that human science has been able to come up with to date is the transplanting of embryonic stem-cells. It’s a rough-and-ready option – a temporary fix. Gerry and I looked forward to the day when the original program could be trapped at the moment of conception, and banked until needed.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The engineer and the auditor – part one

Every Saturday morning for the past four or five years, Gerry and I met for a buffet breakfast at one of the hotels along The Beach. For twenty bucks each, we got mental stimulation enough to last us for the whole week.

He died of a heart attack the other day, so there will be no more breakfasts.

We had other things going on in our lives, and we were very different in character. He was an active engineer, I a long-retired auditor. We brought our respective skills to our breakfast conversations, and usually argued our way to agreement on the topics and themes on our agenda.

He was what’s called a polymath, with knowledge that covered a variety of aspects of scientific enquiry. From stem-cell research and gene therapy, he deduced (provisionally) that humankind must have been designed by a computer programmer and engineer, not of this world. As a devout heathen, it alarmed him to find himself on the same side as the Intelligent Design people, at least in respect of the creation of life on this planet.

My main role in our Saturday meetings was to challenge the logic of his positions, and I pointed out that his hypothetical extra-terrestrial engineer was not necessarily benign, or fully sentient. It could have been a random force of nature – a kind of idiot-savant, like Dustin Hoffman in the movie “Rain Man”. We easily agreed that the creator of humanity was not the originator of the universe, and that neither of them warranted worship. (Why would they?)

We both detested organised religions, and the self-serving priesthoods that maintain them. Religions are just unsophisticated tribes of initiates, slaves to their respective tribal rites and rituals. We marvelled at the capacity of even the most highly developed tribes (nations, now) to trick their subjects into abandoning ethics and principles at the merest sniff of an enemy.

He and I argued whether man’s “selfish” gene was stronger than his “social” gene. If the former, then sociopaths were the norm and the rest of us were abnormal. If, as we suspected, all major tribal/national leaders throughout history were sociopaths, then “human rights” have been but a passing fad, doomed to failure. But, we never found agreement on that point.

Gerry particularly deplored the brutalisation of US society, and saw parallels with the early Nazi regime in Germany. His children and grandchildren were (are) all Americans, and he feared for their futures, as self-exiled Germans must have feared for their families in the 1930s. He renounced his US citizenship, and I let my US visa lapse. We struggled to identify the hidden rulers of the US. Who are the monsters who bribe and threaten Federal politicians, and pull their puppet-strings?

We had never believed the official version of the assassination of JFK, and now found ourselves questioning official versions of other mysteries. Was it really Western bankers who financed the fledgling USSR, and the burgeoning Nazis? Are the same forces behind today’s drive for permanent war, so profitable for contractors and their financiers?

As an engineer, he was offended by the (to him) plain lie that WTC #7 had collapsed and crumbled to dust in its own footprint without the help of explosives. As an auditor, I questioned the plausibility of the claim that nineteen barefoot Arab boys had breached the defences – not once, but four times – of the world’s strongest military defence, without help.

Iraq’s WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) justified the launch of a Western Crusade of Terror against selected Moslem communities in the Middle East, and (later) in the West itself. If the WMDs were a lie, what else might the liars have lied about? The World Trade Center sprang readily to our cynical minds.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The story of "Nigger" Brown

After our family moved from the bush to Toowoomba, and whenever I was at home for the weekend during the football season, my Dad and I walked a mile down Arthur Street to the ground, in the face of the coldest wind in Queensland. We weren’t all that close, he and I, but we both loved watching football, which in Toowoomba meant Rugby League, on which American football was based.

 A large crowd turned up every Saturday – rain, hail or freezing wind – to watch the same four teams battle for the local title and the individual players battle for selection to the Toowoomba team and maybe even the Queensland team.

Our town had always been the heart and soul of the State’s rugby code ever since the local team had beaten a touring England national team in 1920. The greatest player of that era, and the first Toowoomba boy to play for Australia, was Nigger Brown. He was so revered that they named the new grandstand after him in the 1960s. Calling it The E S (“Nigger”) Brown Stand was not controversial at the time, though there was a big fuss when it was proposed to retain the name for a replacement grandstand forty years later.

He always introduced himself by his nickname – which he had come by in his youth either as a reference to a popular commercial shoe-polish colour called Nigger Brown or as an ironic reference to his blue eyes and fair hair and skin. It was never established which.

(Nigger was never a common word in Queensland, by the way, until American soldiers came over during the war against Japan. We had plenty of terms of racial abuse, but that wasn’t one of them. Especially in Toowoomba...)

The name of "Nigger Brown" was so well known that even the elders of the local aboriginal community backed its retention in 2008, and refused to sign a protest-petition to change it. However, they did eventually buckle under pressure from some of their young bloods. The football administrators eventually gave way, too, though they did defiantly erect a statue to their hero (inside the ground) with the taboo word prominently included.

Here in Cayman, the n-word and its compounds are considered rude among ethnic Caymanians of all colours, but not excessively so. (Only among white expats are the words utterly taboo.) They’re not usually spoken in a racial context: “us niggers” as a self-deprecatory term is not all that uncommon – though Caymanians are well aware of its shock value to white foreigners. As a white expat I myself would never in a million years use the word or any of its compounds in any circumstances.

But, well (blush), I did once. It happened in my earliest days as captain of the Village Greenies Seconds cricket team. One Sunday, we were batting against By-Rite (I think) and a new bowler came on – a young black chap who was new to me. As keeper of the scorebook I asked my team-mates who he was. “You don’t know him? That’s Nigger Charlie.”

“Ohh-kay. Well, I can’t write that. What’s his real name?” “We don’t know. People only ever calls him Nigger Charlie. Just write it down.” “No!” “Well, here, I'll write it down for you.” “No! Not in my scorebook. Jesus!” Gales of laughter at my discomfort, from everybody who heard the exchange. Red-faced and unamused, I left a blank space for his name until the lunch-break, when I went up to the man himself and asked him. He told me, and I wrote it down – Edward Smith or something like that.

Next week, some member of our team who had missed the game was flipping through the scorebook. He pointed at the name and asked “Who’s that?” I hesitated a second (one-Mississippi...), and grimaced. “That’s Nigger Charlie,” I said. He nodded in recognition. “A good bowler. Fast, man!”

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Cayman’s politics of exclusion

An old chum from my school days in the bush went into politics later, and for ten years represented our local electorate in the Australian Federal Parliament. It was a safe Country Party seat, and it was no big deal for him to win 60% of the 100,000 votes cast each time.

The electorate’s area was unusually large, even for Australia – slightly larger than the State of Texas, if you can believe that, and twice the size of the entire British Isles. (Wikipedia’s entry for “Division of Maranoa” shows its size in relation to the State of Queensland.)

Of course Australia is a big place, and Queensland alone dwarfs all but a few dozen of the world’s nations. But what was (and is) remarkable is that all the candidates standing for this huge constituency visited every homestead, settlement, drovers’ camp and railway-gangers’ hut, before every Federal election. Every voter needed to be assured of his or her importance.

What brought Maranoa to my mind is the spectacle of our local candidates in Grand Cayman striving desperately for the attention of 16,000 voters spread over a bare eighty square miles. Sixteen of them will be elected, each with a responsibility (on average) of five square miles. Oh, the hustle! Oh, the bustle! Talk about a scramble for a slice of the pie, in this fabulously rich little island.

My parents never actually voted for my mate Ian, because by 1980 we were long gone from the district. Our whole family would have done, if we’d had the chance. Sentiment is such a strong factor in politics. Dad once told me – I was fourteen at the time – “You know, I really ought to vote for the Labor Party. They’ve always done more for me than the Country Party has.” But he never did.

The Country Party was the self-appointed party of landowners big and small, and Labor represented the working class. Cultural loyalty usually does trump personal-interest loyalty, wherever the two conflict. Look at Cayman. Bloodline Caymanians (on the whole) would never vote for immigrant candidates, even if the law allowed; and they (the bloodliners) have always made damn sure the law does not allow.

Never mind how incompetent and dishonest a bloodline candidate might be, he would generally be preferred (by his fellow-Caymanians) over a competent and honest immigrant candidate. We expat voters – probably half of all voters, these days – are having a hard time choosing from among the 56 Caymanians standing in the next election. They all practice the politics of exclusion, quite without embarrassment.

Some of the candidates are too corrupt for our delicate sensibilities, and some are too openly anti-immigrant. And none of them have committed themselves to a specific course of action in the event of their election.

Not one candidate – even among the independents – has made a credible promise to reduce Import Duty (the main cause of our high cost of living), or to set aside a portion of Public Revenue each year to pay off the huge loan that falls due in 2019. Cayman’s failure to elect someone with the necessary skill and guts will cost us dearly over the next four years, and the four after that.

In theory, what political parties are good for is to present agendas of what they will and won’t do if elected. My friend Ian made his Texas-size pilgrimages just to show his face and that’s all; the voters already knew what his Party’s policies and promises were. If Cayman’s pretend-parties had any sense they would do the same, instead of requiring their candidates to get by on charm alone. The first of our parties to devise a full and detailed set of policies might sweep the polls.

Many of us expats would vote for a Party that promised to sell the Turtle Farm, Pedro’s Castle and Cayman Airways, and to close down the Protocol Office – never mind who the Party put up.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Unsafe custody – how some banks stay alive

Ever since Central Banks began topping up selected banks’ cash reserves to prevent them from going broke, the likelihood of rampant price-inflation has flourished. So far, it has affected mainly high-end corporate salaries and bonuses and the things the recipients spend them on – multi-million-dollar paintings and mansions, etc. The rich are getting noticeably richer.

The reckless money-creation has also benefitted government bureaucrats and other dependents such as welfare recipients and the military-industrial complex. When the new money eventually filters down to the man and woman in the street, that will mark the beginning of the currency collapse we’ve all been warned about for so long. Large and regular across-the-board increases in the prices of food and other commodities will speedily devalue the money in our bank accounts and pension funds.

Speedily, but not instantaneously. For instantaneous financial losses, consider the following three examples.

Last month, some insolvent banks in Cyprus (they had invested in Greek bonds and other rubbish) suddenly converted up to 60% of customers’ current and savings account balances into shares in the banks, without notice or warning. The shares may not be sold; there is no free market for them.

In effect, the rule of law was suspended; the money was flat-out stolen. The government of Cyprus was too much in debt itself to bail out the banks, and reckoned the only way to save them was to steal the customers’ money. The European Central Bank agreed.

A week later, an international Dutch bank (ABN AMRO, owned by the Dutch government) confiscated all its customers’ gold bullion being held in safe custody. The bank did agree to pay for the bullion, though at artificially low prices. The custody contracts were simply ignored, and the bank used the bullion for its own purposes. (ABN is ten times the size of the biggest Cyprus bank, and half the size of the Royal Bank of Canada.)

18 months earlier, a commodities broker in the USA (about the same size as the Cyprus bank) confiscated all its clients’ Trust Account balances (“segregated funds”) and put the money in its own general bank account. Even with this illegal bail-out, the firm went bust; the clients’ money was never returned. The relevant government agencies decided not to prosecute anybody for the theft.

It’s a growing trend. These three thefts are expected to become precedents for insolvent banks throughout the US and Euro currency-blocs. We amateur investors have to wonder how vulnerable our deposits and assets are, held by professional custodians however reputable.

For centuries it has been legal for banks to lend out multiple times their deposit-bases. As long as a prudent balance is kept between the expiry-dates of unsecured loans from customers (savings and cheque accounts) and of secured loans to customers, there should be no danger. But “segregated funds and investments” have always been untouchable, until now. Suddenly, it’s a dangerous world we live in.

When secured loans go bad, things can quickly get nasty. That’s what has been happening over the past several years, since some of the world’s most senior bankers and auditors allowed personal greed to over-ride their traditional ethics and practices. When assets held in trust become vulnerable to theft at the whim of the custodians, where will our savings be safe?

Which bank or broker can we trust? Could it happen here in Cayman? Yes, it could – if Britain allowed it. God knows our government is just as incompetent as Cyprus’s, in the management of money. It would be nice to hear some assurance from the custodians of our money, locally. And from our Monetary Authority, too, and the FCO. What do they all think of the shenanigans going on in Cyprus, Holland and the USA?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

France – a love affair

International Driving Permits are valid for twelve months, and I must have bought mine just before leaving Australia in 1963. When it expired, I was in the middle of France with Chris and Annika. Chris was one of the South Africans from our Earl’s Court flat, and Annika was his Dutch girlfriend.

We had been down to Andorra and Spain for a couple of weeks, and would be back in London in a few days – if the gendarmes didn’t catch me driving without a valid licence. Also, our wallets were all but empty, so we couldn’t even pay a fine. We had to go without breakfast to afford a new Permit. (Annike had lost her purse two days into the trip, and we scraped by without its contents; it had been a frugal vacation since then.)

As it transpired, the cost of the Permit wasn’t a problem. A polite-but-cold bureaucrat in Grenoble explained that Permits could only be obtained in one’s country of residence. Sorry! “But madame! I am not in my country of residence. I am here!” [Basic schoolboy French, you understand. “Je suis ici!”] Shrug. “Then you must go there”, she said. “How will we get there?” “Drive.” “But madame, it would not be legal for me to drive in France without a Permit.” It was like that Harry Belafonte song, “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza...”

She shrugged again. I tried another angle. “Could I perhaps obtain a French domestic licence?” A snort, this time. Ah well. I made a careful note of her name and title. If the Police stopped me and demanded a current Permit, I would ask them to phone her and she could explain the situation to them – n’est-ce pas?

It’s hard to generalise about a nation of fifty million, but by and large the French are a practical people. Legal principles aren’t set in stone; every once in a while they can be set aside in the interests of peace and goodwill. My middle-aged antagonist glared at me for fifteen seconds, shook her head in disgust, and typed the Permit. I kissed her hand passionately, made it plain that if she and I had been alone in the office her marriage vows might have been in danger, and got out just before she smiled.

I’ve loved France ever since, and everything about it – except its predilection to torture its colonial subjects; its rulers tend to be nasty people. And, to be truthful, I don’t love Marseilles, either.

Almost thirty years later, another example of the same practicality – this time in Martinique, a French Overseas Department in the Caribbean, where I was due to represent the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce at some EU-Caribbean conference or other. It was a bit of a shock to be refused entry because I didn’t have a visa in my Australian passport.

On earlier visits to France (Martinique is part of metropolitan France, constitutionally), no visa had been required. Unbeknownst to me, the rules had changed since then. Australia had for some reason (the Rainbow Warrior affair, perhaps?) begun requiring visas from French visitors, and France had retaliated.

Under the new rules, I had to be put back on the plane that brought me. But, well, this was an international conference at which France’s prestige would be on the line... and I assuredly would have been granted a visa if I had applied... and the plane wasn’t departing until the next morning... and... The young gendarme shrugged and smiled a trifle ruefully as he stamped me in and wished me a pleasant stay.

Nobody’s perfect, of course. French people can be very rude, especially to foreigners who don’t speak French well enough. I’ve been the victim of that. What you do is insist on speaking French to the rude one – badly, loudly, and at length. Keep at it until he or she runs away sobbing. Then turn to whoever is still around and ask gently (in French) if they speak English. You’ll be surprised how many are willing to try.