Monday 25 June 2012

Jimmy Carr & Financial Advisors

I wonder if one of the great divides in modern society is between those who believe that paying taxes is an unreasonable burden to be avoided by any means possible, and those for whom taxes are their contribution to the society in which they live and work.

For example, according to Stephen Pollard, writing in The Express:
Let me be blunt: only a fool would pay more tax than he has to. The Government sets the rules and the rest of us follow them. Who would choose to hand over more money than the law requires?
Whereas Channel 4 News reports tweets by comedians Frankie Boyle:
It's ok to avoid tax providing every time you do a joke about a town being shit you add "Partly down to me I'm afraid" under your breath"
and John Robins (in response to someone asking ""why is everyone acting as though @JimmyCarr has killed a baby?!"):
Because babies die in underfunded hospitals
Jimmy Carr's initial response to his outing as part of the K2 tax avoidance scheme is reported by the Mirror to have been very much in the 'only a fool' tradition:
I pay what I have to and not a penny more.
By the following day Carr had changed his approach, as reported in Metro:
'I met with a financial adviser and he said to me "Do you want to pay less tax? It's totally legal." I said "Yes."
'I now realise I've made a terrible error of judgement.'
Hopefully this was a change of heart arising from spending time thinking things through, although cynicism suggests that he may simply have reflected that a comedian with no credibility is unlikely to have any use for tax avoidance schemes, legal, ethical, or otherwise.

But what about the financial advisor? Presumably s/he thought they were just doing their job by coming up with wildly unethical ways for their clients to avoid paying their taxes to the government - I guess it 'justifies' the money being paid instead to the advisor. So maybe the advisor feels duty bound to suggest such schemes and the client, knowing little about financial matters - that's why they are paying a financial advisor after all -  just thinks "saving a bit of cash, fair enough" and agrees.

As Cliff D'Arcy puts it in the Daily Mail:
Indeed, the tax system is seen as a 'game of cat and mouse' by tax advisers, who get paid very well to find new loopholes as and when HMRC closes old ones.
But D'Arcy puts this 'game' into context for the rest of us:
It's reckoned that aggressive tax-avoidance plans such as K2 could be costing the UK as much as £4.5billion a year in lost taxes. That's enough to reduce the basic rate of income tax from 20 per cent to 18.5 per cent overnight.
Many years ago, when I earned rather more money than I do now, I had a financial advisor used to visit. Once we'd got past the initial gimmicks she was well-informed and useful: with good advice about how to balance long and short-term savings, for example, and making sure credit cards are paid off in full each month. Nothing terribly special, perhaps, but I learnt a lot which came in handy later when my income dropped fairly drastically. So maybe financial advisors come in two sorts also: those who see their job as being to help their clients ethically and with integrity, and those who just want to get clients and make money.

The difference, incidentally, between ways of reducing tax paid that I consider ethical and those which I do not lies in their contribution to wider society. For example, in the UK an ISA is a way of encouraging individuals to save by reducing the tax paid on interest earned in qualifying savings schemes. They were deliberately set up by the UK government because such savings are seen as being good for the nation as a whole, and they are simple and straightforward in operation. K2, and other avoidance schemes, are none of those.

I started by considering two sides of a great divide on paying tax: those who want to pay their way, and those who want to avoid responsibility. Actually I think there is a third group, probably much larger than either: those who will follow the crowd. Nobody really likes paying tax, but tax is a vital foundation of a functioning society. So either people think it through, coming down on one side or the other of my divide, or they just drift. If Jimmy Carr's 'terrible error of judgement' has the effect of encouraging people to drift towards paying their way in society that would be a useful start.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Love The Sinner But Hate The Sin?

The total transformation that occurs within a chrysalis has always amazed me. A caterpillar ties itself up with a little silk, then its whole internal structure is reworked into something totally new. After a period of weeks or months the new butterfly is revealed, yet it is formed from just the same stuff as the old caterpillar - everything is reused except for a little silk and the outer skin. There's a wonderful description of the process, by Dr Lincoln Brower, here.

Comparisons between the caterpillar/butterfly metamorphosis and resurrection have been made before, of course, but these usually involve the thoroughly unbiblical image of some sort of immaterial butterfly casting off the shackles of material existence to fly free into heaven. It's a pretty image, and I can see why those who just want to escape from the world might like it. The God of the Bible, though, isn't interested in helping us escape from the world, he wants to renew the world, and us as well.

Jesus was the first true resurrection and he is the model for how it works. After he had been raised his tomb was empty and he was recognisably and physically human ... although changed in some odd way, maybe best described as more than human, but never less.

So for us the biggest, most important transformation to look forward to at resurrection is not the change to our bodies, but the change to our hearts and minds. That is where we will soar like a butterfly, rather than an earthbound caterpillar - doubtless the new improved body promised will be great (especially for those of us who are middle-aged or more), but renewal starts with the heart.

So why the post title: 'Love the sinner but hate the sin?' - what does that well-known phrase have to do with butterflies?

Over on Jared Byas' blog, he recently wrote a post with this same title (apart from the '?') which got me thinking and commenting to the extent that it became clear I really ought to do my own blog post. The heart of his argument is that the separation between sin and sinner is spurious, and a denial of the embracing power of God's love:
If we don’t accept that deep down we are still sinners and that sin is a part of our identity and yet Jesus still loves us, then we will keep naively and unintentionally hurting a lot people. By definition, sinners have sin as a part of who they are. So if you use this cliché, what you really mean is that I will love this part of your life but I will hate that part of your life. Or should I say, that’s often what people hear you saying. And you wonder why people find Christians judgemental and not very Christ-like? ... We are all sinners. We are all sin. We are all loved. All of us.
Jesus once said that the things we do and say come out of our hearts, from who we are. So separating 'sin' from 'sinner' is indeed spurious. So how can God love us (and our neighbours)? Does God love sin?

I think a good part of the answer to this lies in the transforming power of the Resurrection. Some churches and churchgoers talk in terms of judgement: God destroying anything that is tainted by evil. Yet resurrection promises transformation: God changing evil to good. It is like the chrysalis: all of the caterpillar is used in making the butterfly, nothing is rejected. So it is that God can see the potential for goodness and beauty in all that we are, even the parts that seem dark and ugly, and so He loves us - all that we are - and sends Jesus to save us, so that we may be made beautifully new.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Wave Particle Duality For Beginners

I started off trying to do a post about determinism, and it's religious equivalent, predestination. But I soon found I was having to spend too many words trying to describe wave-particle duality and quantum uncertainty, so I'll try hiving that off into this post. So here we go, one of the deepest, most mysterious and least understood areas of modern physics, explained for the intelligent non-scientist in a little under 750 words! And a jolly nice picture of a t-shirt to boot.

So, what's wave-particle duality all about? Essentially it just says that things (more later about what 'things') sometimes act like a waves - spreading out, reflecting, refracting, diffracting, interfering with other waves, that sort of thing - and sometimes act like particles, travelling in straight, narrow lines, bouncing off one another, and so on, rather like billiard balls (or pool balls).

Victorian-era scientists 'knew' that light was a wave and that atoms and electrons were particles. They also 'knew' that the job of scientists was pretty much over, as all scientific principles had been discovered ... this was before electronics, before the nuclear atom, before relativity, before television. It's amazing what people 'know' sometimes. Around about a century ago several (mostly young) scientists spoilt the party by discovering that the world is a lot stranger than anyone had realised.

A guy called Max Planck threw the first spanner in the works by showing that when a body (such as the filament of a light bulb) emits light, it does so in discrete lumps, known as photons, whose energy depends only on the frequency of the light. Then Albert Einstein showed that when light was absorbed by metal, kicking out an electron in the photoelectric effect, it was also absorbed in photons. Essentially light is created as particles, travels in waves, and is absorbed as particles again. This was revolutionary and took a long time to be accepted. Nevertheless, when the experiments were carried out that is what they showed: light behaves as waves in some circumstances but as particles in others.

Particles rule okay? Well, no, not really. A few years later, Neils Bohr - who didn't actually believe in photons - showed that electrons in an atom orbit around a dense, positively charged, central nucleus, but they can only do so in certain discreet orbits. So the electron can't zoom around any old where. Years later Louis de Broglie showed that these allowed orbits could be explained if the electrons behaved like waves which were only stable if their orbit was a whole number of wavelengths. I.e. at the end of one orbit around the nucleus the wave function was exactly back where it started. He generalised this to say that all moving particles can be described as matter waves, a hypothesis which was later demonstrated to be true when electrons were fired through a diffraction grating, resulting in a wave interference pattern. So, electrons, amongst other things, behave as particles in some circumstances but as waves in others.

All very well and good, but where does determinism come into it? Well, the essence of determinism is that the laws of nature are completely predictable: if you could know the exact properties of every entity in the universe at any one time, you could predict their properties at every other time. In other words, determinism says: "everything is fixed and you can't change it".

Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg extended de Broglie's work and made it more precise. In doing so they had to deal with a difficulty in the transition from wave-like behaviour to particle-like. A wave is spread out whereas a particle is at a single location. Somehow the wave function of a matter wave must 'collapse' into a particle at a point. They showed that the matter wave acted as a probability distribution: the actual position in which a particle appeared was random, more likely where the matter wave was biggest, less likely where it was smaller, but still essentially indeterminate.

Einstein and de Broglie both hated this randomness; Einstein famously said that "God does not play dice with the universe". The trouble is that as the years go on and as quantum theory becomes more refined and more tested, that fundamental randomness remains. The transition from wave behaviour to particle behaviour is inherently unpredictable.

Our best scientific description of the universe is that its behaviour is not predetermined; there is room for free will.

Monday 11 June 2012

Is The West Making Syrian Suffering Worse?

The 'Arab Spring' hit Syria in March last year when security forces arrested and tortured a group of teenagers - for painting revolutionary slogans on their school's walls. They opened fire on the resulting protest march, killing four, and again at a funeral for the victims, killing at least one more. As a display of brutal incompetence by the Syrian regime it is hard to see how this could have been beaten.

Before that commentators were generally agreed that Syria was unlikely to be seriously affected by the changes affecting the more southerly autocratic regimes in the region. Although far from democratic, President Bashar Al-Assad was seen as reasonably popular within Syria, had already brought in some mild reform, and represented stability and security in a large country with a varied population. Opposition and protest groups were fragmented and localised; Syrians saw the possibility of breakdown, even civil war, and were thought to be horrified at the risk. The horrible example of neighbouring Iraq made it all too clear what could happen.

The trouble is that all those arguments still stand, except that Assad isn't doing so well at imposing security himself. Syria is currently headed toward anarchy and civil war, and Western intervention is just making chaos more likely. The Independent reports that the death toll to date is thought to be around 10,000, whilst a further 1.5 million are estimated to need 'urgent humanitarian assistance'.

Meanwhile the spotlight of the Western media is on every minor uprising, encouraging revolt to happen and criticising every attempt to prevent rebellion from growing. The publicising of the violence leads to pressure from consumers of the media to 'do something', without any idea what that 'something' is. So now Western leaders are again talking about 'regime change'.

We've been here before, in Iraq. Years of sanctions which hit the poorest, and limited oil-sale schemes which benefited the corrupt, until finally the West got the invasion it wanted and Iraqis got anarchy. At least in Iraq the regime had been genuinely evil: something like a million people had suffered and died under Saddam Hussein, so the half-million plus who died under US rule could, arguably, be said to be vaguely proportionate.

Under Bashar Al-Assad, the only report of significant regime killings I can find was at the 2004 Al-Qamishli riots, where clashes between Arabs and Kurds, combined with police brutality, led to some 30 deaths (some reports set the figure as high as a hundred). Since the Western media focussed on Syria the death toll is well up in the thousands; if full-scale civil war or other form of anarchy breaks out then that will be in the hundreds of thousands, maybe even worse. Brutal suppression of rebellion can be bloody; sometimes the alternative can be worse.

It is notable that the diplomatic games around Syria refuse to involve Iran: if there was a serious interest in peace then Iran and Russia are the two states with a realistic chance of making a difference, but peace and justice are really not the name of the game here. If they were then the focus would be much more on the Arab Gulf states, particularly Bahrain, where a tiny but immensely wealthy regime oppresses the majority of citizens with little more than token complaints from its Western 'friends'.

I'm not saying that Assad is a good leader, nor that Syria is anything other than autocratic and corrupt. But what's happening there now isn't part of an 'Arab Spring' movement toward democracy. It's small localised revolts which are gradually growing towards outright civil war; and civil war is very bad indeed for the people of a country.

So, next time you see a news report of deaths in Syria, before you indulge in self-righteous indignation and claim 'something must be done' ... just take a moment to think that it is likely that your 'something' will just make matters worse. By responding like that you may well be a part of the problem.

Sunday 10 June 2012

The Sower and The Seed II

'Israel' in the New Testament almost always refers to the people (the descendants of Israel, aka Jacob Ben-Isaac) not to a country. This is hardly surprising, as no country called Israel had existed for more than seven centuries, and even back then it had specifically excluded Jews, who inhabitanted the separate kingdom of Judah. Jews, however, were always part of the people Israel.

The exception to the above is in the second chapter of Matthew's gospel, where he talks about the return of Jesus' family from exile in Egypt to 'the land of Israel' - as a clear reference to the old Exodus journey.

When Jesus told his parable about the sower and the seed, many in the crowd would have been familiar with the writing of the prophet Isaiah. Many years before, Isaiah had written a poem, known as 'The Song of the Vineyard', which talked about Israel as a vineyard which would only bear bad fruit. Therefore God had abandoned it and given it over to being trampled, filled with weeds, and dried out.

Why, in Jesus' parable, was the land so neglected? Because when God looked to Israel in that time for justice and righteousness, nothing had changed: He found only bloodshed and cries of distress.

Yet Jesus still came to scatter the seed. Much of it was wasted, perhaps - this was not good land. But there were still places, here and there, maybe where it was least expected, in which seed did manage to take root, to grow and to bear good fruit. Israel's leaders may have rejected Jesus and handed him over to be crucified, but there was still a remnant of Israel to remain faithful and to receive God's Spirit: new life for them and for the world.

And so it seems to continue: the seed is scattered and people respond in different ways: some with indifference, some with enthusiasm; some bear good fruit, others very bad - as a knowledge of church history makes only too clear.

But I'm not sure the story ends there. I think (after discussing the passage with others) that there is another, higher note in the chord - one which is maybe more directly relevant to our lives today.

Jesus' death and resurrection changes everything, and that change is enabled by God's Spirit poured into people's hearts. It seems to me that the farmer is at work again: clearing stones and removing weeds. God's Spirit waters and cleanses lives, allowing fruit to grow in the most unlikely places.

There are people in churches today who are sure of their own righteousness (in Jesus, of course), and of their own suitability to grow fruit for God. Maybe they are right. But there are many others, inside and outside churches, who are all too aware of their own limitations, who assume their own unsuitability to be God's garden.

The truth is that it is often those who are most aware of their need for help who will bear the most fruit, because they will let the Spirit do the work. Jesus changes everything: it is the flawed and the insecure who are the most important in His Kingdom. If that is you, then be glad. Watch out for, and celebrate, God at work within you. Be open with those around you, about your flaws and about your growth, that they may share in your encouragement.

God is good and God is love ... sometimes we forget.

Friday 8 June 2012

The Sower And The Seed I

The vast majority of the Bible was written to be listened to and discussed in groups, not read alone. There is a breadth of knowledge, wisdom and Spiritual insight in a group which no one person can have on their own. So it is really strange that the standard pattern for teaching and preaching in modern churches is one person spending hours alone in their study then standing up to give a lecture to a congregated, but silent, audience. Maybe that's why so much preaching today fails to engage, with either daily life or even with the Scriptures.

Jesus' parable of the sower and the seed comes up fairly often in churches, as it occurs in all three synoptic Gospels and comes with an 'explanation' from Jesus. It's less well known outside churches, probably because its usual interpretation is not really very interesting or relevant. Jesus does seem inclined to give 'explanations' which raise more questions then they answer, and this parable rather illustrates this.
"Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times."
Then Jesus added "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear" - in a Jewish context 'hearing' is partnered with 'responding', as in the Shema, "Hear, O Israel, ...". So Jesus is presenting this parable as something which should be producing a response in its hearers.

Tom Wright, in his Mark for Everyone study guide, likens Jesus' parables to chords and speaks of choir auditions where he had to pick out and sing individual notes from a chord. A parable can have several separate layers of understanding, from the basic story up through different interpretations until we reach the one which corresponds to our part in the musical score of God's story in our communities.

In medieval times interpreters sometimes went to extreme and, to modern ears, ludicrous lengths to forcibly allegorise their own opinions and prejudices onto parables, so understanding does need to be done with care, humility, and a rootedness in the text. Every harmony needs to relate back to the root, and to the other notes in the chord.

So the basic text, the bass line so to speak, is an odd story of an apparently careless farmer who doesn't bother weeding and destoning his field, and just scatters seed about without visible concern where it lands.
"The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown."
The two quoted sections above are from Mark's gospel, chapter 4; retellings in Matthew 13 and Luke 8 are almost identical, except that Luke likens the seed to "the word of God", whilst Matthew refers to "the message of the kingdom". All three versions place the parable in the context of large crowds of people coming to hear Jesus speak.

So the next note in the chord looks to refer to the thousands of people who came out to listen to Jesus. Some simply saw the latest spectacle and would move on; others might respond initially, but only a minority would stay with Jesus all the way through. But those few would be enough for God to start a movement of people through whom He would change the world.

Which still begs several questions about a farmer who does nothing to clear the weeds and remove the stones, not to mention being so careless about where the seed is scattered. And what does it have to do with us, here, today?

To be continued...

Saturday 2 June 2012

May 2012 Ramble

I think last month has to go down as being very definitely not my favourite month.

It began (and continued) with my wife hobbling about on crutches, off work and needing to be taken everywhere by car - including extra trips to physios, doctors, scans, etc. Lousy for her, challenging for my CFS/ME. Thankfully she's now working part time - mornings - trundling around on her crutches, although that gets very painful for her after a while.

I gather there are increasing numbers of people being injured by out-of-control dogs in our local parks. It is the old problem of an incompetent and inconsiderate minority messing things up for everyone else - if they cannot control their dog they should keep it on a lead, it's that simple surely.

Having had CFS/ME more-or-less under control for many years now, I have occasionally wondered how far the symptoms nowadays are more down to middle age and physical unfitness. Mid-May I was hit by a virus when my system was already on the edge, and simply crashed. There is a distinctive combination of feverishness, migraine, nausea, hunger and utter exhaustion - suddenly it all came rushing back to me. Now I'm just fragile and sleeping like a toddler (or old, old man) every afternoon.

A fortnight ago my father-in-law (pictured) died; his funeral was last week. He'd been very poorly since last summer, and not at all well for several years before that, so it wasn't really a surprise ... but still a shock, if you see what I mean. Similarly, it was very sad that he's gone ... but also not sad, because he really was not well and emphysema isn't something you recover from. It's amusing to think of him up with Simon Peter: discussing boats, supping fine ale, and setting the world to rights. Then settling down for a good long rest.

The sting in the tail is that it would have been my Dad's birthday at the beginning of the month; he too died of emphysema a few years back. Not good.

Any silver lining to this May? Well, there was the Delain concert I have already posted about, and there was my son home for the final week. We expected him back for his Grandad's funeral, but he suddenly turned up several days earlier than I'd expected; so that was a pleasant surprise.

That's about it though, in truth. Oh well, here's looking forward to June with optimism and hope. We never quite know what treats might be just around the corner.