Monday, December 20

The big wet


Except for a small part of Western Australia Australia this year experienced a rain deluge to eclipse all previous records. Everywhere you see a velvet green carpet instead of the usual brown paddocks.

The hopes of farmers were raised early on the expectation for the best harvest ever as a respite from a decade’s long drought. Early optimism is now threatened by simply too much rain preventing harvesting due to widespread flooding. Others unable to spray to repel the expected locusts plague attacks (once the weather finally clears ) may also have their hopes dashed. But despite these setbacks many will rejoice over the rich pastures with abundant fodder for stock or in the dry farming regions which this year promise record yields.

The really good environmental news is the floodwaters have entered and flushed out the mouth of the mighty Murray River ( Australia's largest river system )to restore the ecology of the Coorang. Previously the Coorong dependant for its biological existence on periodic washing from the sea mouth was facing slow strangulation as the mouth remained permanently blocked due to insufficient water flow as too much was taken out for irrigation during the long drought.

But if you would like to view natures ability to renew itself and to work miracles this inspirational story of Lake Eyre with amazing scenery is worth seeing by clicking on the link above. I think you will be suitably impressed with both the scenery and the story.

Finally a joyous season to everyone.

Monday, December 6

A revelation

Eschatology comes from the Greek ‘logos’ describing the final or last event, but it also can mean the end of an age or time. In monotheistic religions (religions believing in one God such as Christianity Judaism and Islam) eschatological writings, amongst other things, supported a hope and desire for a kingdom free from suffering and evil. In that context the prophesies were intended as a solace to those suffering, under siege or subject to tribulation to revive drooping hearts with prophetic majesty.

At the time of Jesus a new Messiah was eagerly awaited in Israel, since the Jews, whose ‘Promised Land’ was being confiscated by the Romans, were unable to pay the punitive crippling Roman taxes being imposed, and were being imprisoned or forced to become fisherman, or executed. The Jewish people longed for a Messiah (an anointed one) to come in glory to end the Roman yoke and usher in a new just kingdom. Despite the Roman rule with their multiple Gods worship the Jews were allowed to practice their own religion. The Jewish authorities imposed additional taxes for the upkeep of the temple and priests, creating an uneasy alliance with their Roman occupiers in exchange for continued religious freedom.

It was within this seething cauldron of politics and unrest that Jesus was born and to whom their hope for a new kingdom was attributed. But very little is known about Jesus as any study will quickly conclude historically he barely exists – since there are only two fleeting references outside of the Bible in the whole of cumulative history. References by Tacitus and Pliny in the first century A.D. don’t prove that Jesus Christ existed but rather confirm the existence of Christians at that time.
Within the biblical texts we know a lot about his death and subsequent events but virtually nothing ( except for a brief reference to his excursion into the temple whilst with his parents ) of his earlier life, since what is recorded is almost exclusively confined to his short public ministry, which scholars think lasted only one to three years. All we have in any detail are the accounts recorded in the gospels which consist of parables loosely interwoven into the story of his ministry and death. It seems very likely to me the communities, while initially devastated by his death, thought he would shortly reappear to establish a new messianic kingdom. The fact the gospels were not written until maybe 60- 70 years after his death adds weight to the idea the early church saw no need to record in history what was believed would become irrelevant to be soon supplanted by the establishment of a new messianic kingdom. Further evidence is in Paul’s letters to the fledgling Christian communities in Asia Minor written only about 20-30 years after Jesus’ death which are all strongly rooted in eschatology.

As time progressed the immediacy of this eschatology softened so that by the time Revelations was recorded maybe 80-90 years after his death the language becomes descriptive and less definitive; symbolic seals, plagues, beasts, trumpets and the number 7 describe a new age clothed in mystery. Our modern day understanding can best be understood by reference to allegory, metaphor and myth. Revelations is a personal and cosmological perspective of how Christ’s death and those who suffered martyrdom solidified an everlasting gift of atonement; the metaphorical reference to the slaughtered lamb is the atoning victory of Christ. Revelations is not so much a prophesy about the future but more of an existential revelation, rich in imagery and symbolism of the continuum of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Revelations rallies against the transitory nature of the emperor’s power whose earthly reign is both temporary and illusory compared with the primacy of Christ’s death and resurrection.

The real revelation is the mystery that the kingdom of God is already established as an existential reality, but that it lies tantalizingly outside of the realms of our earthly restraints.

Thursday, November 25

Dinner dance to the tune of the “Degenerates”


The Malawi Support Group held another Fundraiser last Saturday when we were entertained and danced to the wonderful music of the "The Degenerates" who donated their services for our dinner dance.
The performance of this marvelous band seems to become more polished each year. One of our past members of the Malawi Support group who died several years ago told the story to another good friend about his experience whilst serving in the merchant marine in WW2. Whilst under severe bombardment everyone was feeling frightened and miserable but during a lull the ships loudspeakers broadcast the song ‘White Christmas’. He recalled vividly the immediate calming effect on the entire company. One of the band members who was his good friend had asked me to sing that song at a previous function he attended. We repeated the song again at this function in memory of our good friend as a reminder of the universality of music as a source of warmth and hope for the darkest of times.
For more photos visit the Malawi Blog under blogs of interest.
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Monday, November 15

Some Enchanted Evening


Who could fail to appreciate the deep rich baritone voice of Brian Stokes Mitchell singing the part of Emile and the immortal words of ‘ Some Enchanted Evening ‘ from that great Broadway show ‘ South Pacific ‘ from the genius of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Occasionally a singer ‘owns’ a song as it seems no one else can bring that unique powerful vocal interpretation into play; but he is even better singing ‘This nearly was mine’ from the same show but there is a block on the encoding.

Standing next to Brian is Reba McIntyre (who was for 4 years in a row Country Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year and is also a fabulous actress) in Concert from Carnegie Hall. Reba aptly sings the part of Nellie elswhere in the performance. All I can say if you don’t like this version you don’t like ice-cream.

I have sung the song many times but never heard a version as rich as this one. Surprisingly he does not take the top note at the end; possibly to maintain the depth and tessitura (musically the most comfortable range for a given singer) that encapsulates this song so magically within his vocals range.

Friday, October 29

Biennial Conference in Philosophy


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I recently attended the ‘Biennial Conference in Philosophy Religion and Culture’ held in Sydney and entitled “Creation, Nature and the Built Environment”.

Above are photos taken whilst there depicting a harbour scene around Balmain where we stayed and from the Kurnell cliff tops within the national park. The lone rock fisherman was nearly washed off soon after I took the picture.

These conferences started in the early seventies to inform the Catholic Church about the latest contemporary theology and philosophy from a variety of Catholics and non Catholic scholars. I am attempting to provide some snippets from a few of the many papers presented.

The keynote address was by three New Zealand academics namely Elizabeth Aitken-Rose, Douglas Pratt and Jennifer Dixon on “Community and Incarceration: The Architecture of Alienation and the Politics of Redemption”.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies (Kings College, London) New Zealand has the fifth highest rate of incarceration per head of population in the OECD – after the USA, Chile, Poland and Czechoslovakia – and well ahead of Australia. New Zealanders pride themselves on breaking records and perhaps the most impressive is the rate at which they lock people up and throw away ongoing responsibility. A new prison in the city of Auckland looms large over the surrounding urban landscape: it is a larger, gloomier, shadier and more embarrassingly obvious human cage than anyone had anticipated. From a Correctional perspective, the locality addresses essential needs. It is close to the courts and a perfect situation for the requisite remand centre.‘

The presenters argued for a radical improvement in the design and administration of prisons to combat the world wide high degrees of recidivism. Their multi faceted approach highlighted the physiological and religious fundamentalism perpetuated in the design roots from a medieval societal view of incarceration. Those involved are working with the NZ government to instigate design improvements and were of particular interest to the press in Australia. In NZ it currently costs the state $90,000 pa per prisoner.

This year the environment was a popular theme with a large number of papers talking about eco-spirituality and drewing attention to environmental concerns.

(Fr) Gregory Jacobs’s sj paper argued ‘that there needs to be a change away from the dualistic model of a mechanical worldview when we look at creation, and returning to an organic, or holistic model. Here he believed that the Temple theology (the idea of reverence for the temple to encpulate the earth as the sacred tabernacle) of the Old Testament, and a deeper understanding of the ‘creation covenant‘are helpful starting points for analyzing the creation stories, and thereby gaining a new understanding of both our place in the environment, and our use of the resources of the earth. Karl Rahner‘s Christology adds a New Testament development of this theology into the modern, western framework.

Cullan Joyce’s religious thinking about the environment has focused on moral issues and on spirituality. His paper approached the question as something that should be of concern to the systematic theologian. As such it asked what saving the environment might have to do with the doctrine of salvation. This entailed a consideration of the connection between the doctrines of creation and salvation. In the end, it may all be a question of how we understand and communicate an adequate understanding of the eschaton. ‘

Personally I think the wisdom of Albert Schweitzer is to be recommended though inevitably there are flaws in his philosophy as there are in any philosophy. His insight contained within his ‘Reverence for life’ involved the ethic of love evidenced in the New Testament to be realized in ones natural occurring gifts.

Schweitzer’s ideas were to think positively about life (life affirmation as he calls it) to share with all living things in the world in which we live. His idea came from his concern about civilization which he thought had lost its spiritual roots because of our lack of reverence for life as in the post enlightenment world view which had become totally reliant on reason. His philosophy was not a utopian ideal or quantifiable to given values, outcomes, behaviors or morality. Rather he encouraged a way of thinking which would return to our spiritual roots whose outcome although diverse shared in the communal ancestry of all living things which he referred to as ethical mystericism. The aim was to think about the reality of our co – inhabitance with the world by accepting our life mystery which was to show reverence for it. His thinking is much more deep seated than a casual observation might first conclude.

Another enthusiastic scholar was Robert Tilley who presented a paper entitled Cosmic Liturgy and Biblical Criticism: a Question of Method: ‘For some decades now there has been what many have called a crisis in biblical criticism. A crisis concerning many of the basic assumptions informing the methods used, which we can see now were little more than the prejudices of modernity. With the rise of the 'Third Quest' the task has been not only to assimilate the early Jewish and Christian material previously neglected, but to rethink our method. A good deal of this project has involved a focus upon the concept of covenant, not merely as a social factor but as a cosmological, even metaphysical, one as well. The effects of this have been both profound and exciting, but the new approach is not without its own attendant pitfalls. By reference to the works of Margaret Barker this paper identifies what is one of the major pitfalls: this is the failure to give due attention to the way in which common concepts can be differently employed, not least by reference to the use of irony and reversal. It is a mistake that not only flattens out the depth and dimensions of history and the texts under discussion, but lends itself to what one might call 'a conspiracy theory method'. A method that effectively means the assumptions of the critic can only ever be confirmed. Thus, we run the risk of repeating the same errors of earlier biblical criticism. ‘

Tilley invites us to think about the prevailing literature at the time and the propensity for the Hebrew writers to engage in different styles as evidenced in the prevailing literature and culture apparent at that time. His invitation was to review the societal nuances from an ironical perspective in contrast to previous scholars who attribute different styles of writing to different authors. Tilley asserts changes in style are a deliberate ploy in keeping with the cultural approach of that age which leads to more liberal interpretation of scripture which is best viewed through the prism of irony. The writer(s) use of myth, poetry, allegory and above all irony add to the rich composition and often confirms an understanding of the sacred nature of life's mystery unable to be articulated in rational dialogue.

Aristotle’s Most Beautiful City
Scholar Andrew Murray is currently involved within the Australian government to bring peace and stability to this troubled Solomon Islands located close to Australia. By introducing the harmonious philosophy of Aristotle he aims in turn to bring peace and tranquility to these troubled Islands.
In Book VII of the Politics, Aristotle notes that ‗beauty is realized in number and magnitude, and the city which combines magnitude with good order must necessarily be the most beautiful. ‘{Politics VII, 4 (1326a33-35)} Not much else is said there about beauty itself, and so the sentence must refer to other discussions. What is Aristotle‘s understanding of beauty? How is it found in the physical features of a city as discussed in Book VII? How does it relate to the moral entity of the best possible city? The paper will in three sections discuss Aristotle‘s understanding of beauty, the beauty of the built city and the beauty of the constituted city’.

Andrew provides some very useful insights as to how the design and architect of a city create a welcoming friendly beautiful environment as opposed to the fortress mentality which only engenders mistrust as a bar to peaceful co existence with ones neighbors.

Tuesday, September 28


A hopping mouse, the house in which we were billeted and back garden. The last photo is the beautiful garden of one of the locals.
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Yours truly with wife in the lovelly garden created by one of the locals.
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Our Local church choir last weekend journeyed to the small country town of Terang which is about 3 hours drive south west of Melbourne to enjoy the tremendous hospitality of the local community. We were all billeted and treated to dinners and a sightseeing excursion of the region along the nearby Great Ocean Road which I have only partially captured in the above photos.

We provided the music for the weekend masses. As everyone enjoyed themselves it seems likely this will become an annual event.

The first photo at Timboon is the old railway station which has been converted to a store selling delicious ice-cream from local produce and whisky.

The second photo is of the Loch Ard Gorge which shows the narrow opening which fortuitously only two survivors were swept through from the Loch Ard wreck on Mutton Bird Island reefs near Port Campbell in 1878. The cabin boy Tom clung to a lifeboat which was washed into the deep gorge now called Loch Ard Gorge. Eva, like most people of that time could not swim but was able to stay afloat useing a chicken coop and spar. Tom dragged her to safety after an hour-long struggle fighting the elements. They rested in a cave at the end of the gorge where she collapsed from exhaustion having spent 5 hours in the water. Tom, after consuming half a bottle of brandy that had been washed ashore, went for help, running into a party from nearby Glenample Station. They returned in time to rescue Eva already turning blue from the cold. Eva and Tom never saw each other after they recovered at Glenample. Eva soon became homesick and returned to Ireland to later marry. Tom became a ship's captain.
The last photo is of an underpass for cattle. Dairy farms in the area have expanded and frequently a property will be both sides of the road.

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Sunday, September 12

Debra Byrne

Occasionally a singer ‘owns’ a song as it seems no one else can bring that unique powerful vocal interpretation into play; an emotional strength aptly befitting the words. I think this is true of Debra Byrne but you can judge that for yourself by listening to her version.

Debra in my view is streets ahead of her contemporaries whose qualities and vocalizations may be superior at times but are no match to her telent evident in this recording.

Friday, August 20

Growing pains

Australia’s surging population more than doubled over the past 50 years fuelled by successive waves of immigration and natural increase accelerating in more recent times. Should the growth spurt continue we may triple in size over the next 50 years; prompting political parties to debate sustainable population levels and the wisdom of continued high immigration levels. Immigration has been the catalyst for growth which has transformed our nation to formally adopt multiculturism as successive waves of immigrants have enriched our culture, whilst creating a diverse range of fledgling new enterprises. But due to poor planning Australia is also experiencing cracks in our infrastructure and a chronic housing shortage. As house prices plummet elsewhere Australia’s average price increase last year in many areas was around 33%, but one day the bubble will burst.

Appropriate Immigration appropriate to sustainable population levels is a complex issue as different conditions apply to the regions. Regional centres mostly can accommodate more people but lack essential infrastructure and skilled employment opportunities which are more evident in our big cities. Overall, Australia is one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world as our large cities of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne make up nearly 70% or the population all huddled along a narrow land strip on the eastern seaboard.

The two sides to the argument are as follows: those in favour of continued high immigration levels on the basis immigration creates the wealth to underpin living standards, education, productivity and provides the growth to absorb higher health spending on an ageing population; versus those against who either maintain we already exceed sustainable population levels or face that imminent risk. The weaknessess in the popular view we can easily accommodate a much bigger population because we only inhabit a tiny fraction of this vast fragile land mass is abundantly evident in our depleted landscape. Prolonged droughts, salination, severe erosion and a bio diversity depletion where species extinctions exceed levels seen anywhere else in the world all point to over-use and a lack of sustainability.

Hence If we define sustainability as a system able to achieve self perpetuation and adaptation in perpetuity then clearly we have already exceeded that point. But as is often the case the quality of any discussion is predicated on asking the right questions, since the carrying capacity to support a given population level in turn reflects a multitude of factors, not least of which are our material dependency and lifestyle choices. Once you begin debating the economics of policies designed to foster more development and housing into the more sparsely populated regional and country areas, away from the burgeoning cities to accommodate more migrants, you assume the same post-war optimistic material mind-set that presided over our current lack of sustainability. Rather I think a more thoughtful approach might be to pose the question ‘How can Australia provide a sustainable home for many more immigrants for us to share our vast land and resources. ?

Overpopulation in a fragile country like Australia is not defined by population density, but by the extent sustainable resources can meet our needs, coupled by a heavy transport reliance to move essential goods and services over vast distances. However, when we talk about people’s needs we immediately run into road blocks, since what is considered a basic human need in one country is a luxury for others living literally on our doorstep with struggling economies, which means mostly they are far worse off. Can we stand by based upon our sovereign rights and demand that all of those needs are to be met before we can widen our doors to willingly share in our resources with others who are far less well off ?.

Naturally enough people conclude their basic needs are denied in times of high unemployment and where there is a large disparity in income. It is also true that sudden dislocation to an economy can have unintended disastrous effects given investments in infrastructure take a long time to build, and any strategies to exit unsustainable development requires consideration for alternatives for those adversely effected. But at the consumer and business level there are many choices we make which are adding to the problem. House sizes have doubled on average over the past 30 years while the average level of occupants have halved. This example is typical of excessive consumerism since the larger homes all need more furniture and entertainment rooms full of elaborate equipment to use more power, water and gas, which provides enormous scope for savings should we revert to more sensible sizing.

Returning to the question 'How can Australia provide a sustainable home for many more immigrants for us to share our vast land and resources?'; it is apparent a larger population can only be sustained by significantly reducing our per capita use of resources. Business will also be helpful as competency improves in accounting for the cost of carbon to preference investments in the new cleaner alternatives, which all require a much higher investment in human capital. Those dirty industries such as coal currently crowd out land that could otherwise be used for agriculture.

Presently there are nearly 100,000 job vacancies in the rural sector.

Paradoxically it is the very idea of growth as such which prevents us from achieving it. In other words by learning from the past mistakes and assessing the present opportunities we can plan a future to include a sizeable migrant intake and also achieve a more sustainable future. But that won’t happen unless there are significant changes in lifestyle and attitude.

Here are a few snippets that may be interest.

Australia's agriculture sector needs an additional 96,000 full-time workers and 10,000 part-time workers.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald in an article headed as per above on the 17th August 2010, the Australian Farm Institute reported that if the sector continues on a business-as-usual course the shortage will worsen, driving up labour costs and limiting future growth in the sector.
Executive director Mick Keogh said agriculture was competing with mining for regional workers, and he believed there was a generally poor perception of the farming sector among school leavers.

Sustainable business practices
Already sustainable business practices is a keyword to Business, Government and in the Not-for-Profit sector as organisations realise the competitive advantage of having an integrated approach to sustainability to reduce their carbon footprint within their operations. Today Business shares those objectives with employees, clients, stakeholders and the communities in which they operate.
It has now become an integral core of the reporting for all public companies in Australia.
Business expects a tax on carbon and is acting as if it is inevitable rather than waiting for government action.

Buying back water for the environment
There is consideration being given to purchase Cubbie’s water licensees under the government’s $3.1 billion program to buy back water for the environment. Cubbie has more water than Sydney Harbour. The water was previously used for cotton crops prior to Cubbie entering into receivership but could be used for other crops that require far less water. The outcome will not be known until after the election.

Food and groceries
The local industry is aiming to achieve an enhanced system to ensure sustainability, to address environmental concerns and remove inefficiencies which will achieve lower costs. Accurate food labelling is now a permanent feature for consumers and the industry is particularly concerned about the impact of deforestation in the South East Asian region and supports the development of certified sustainable palm oil.

Most replacements for ageing equipment today can save up to 80% in energy use and in many instances are 97 % recyclable. Domestic recycling in Australia is well below optimal levels. It's up to us the consumers of this country to ensure all of the recycling programs are working well. That means accurately sorting the items into the various coloured bins so that recyclables don’t finish up in landfills. So far the news is good with a reported steady increase in materials recovered for recycling.
But the big test is to learn to live with less.

Housing and transport.
Maintaining a house is expensive when you think about painting, roofs, bathrooms, kitchens, gutters, lawns, hot water systems, drains and so forth but If you have half the size and half the land you eliminate half the headache. We seriously need to downsize in Australia and the same is true in relation to our transport. People have tended to regard their homes as investments rather than simply as places to live and bring up a family as the case may be.

Sunday, August 1

Old Caltex storage site at Balmain redeveloped

Once this area was a Caltex fuel storage facility close to the city of Sydney at Balmain. The area has now been redeveloped into a picturesque park overlooking the Harbour.
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Thursday, July 15

All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.

I remain mindful of the words of one of the great religious philosopher Thomas Aquinas who said ‘All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly'.

His quote reminds one of our limitations and need for humility. His philosophical style was to argue the for and against before concluding and avoid bold statements based purely on religious texts. Instead, he recommended any relevant scientific or specific knowledge about a subject be studied beforehand as otherwise one risked making a fool of oneself and losing credibility.

Aquinas’ philosophy coincided with the early beginnings of modern day science when all philosophy was based upon science. Interestingly enough it is only in more recent times as the volume of scientific knowledge expanded exponentially that we seek to separate the two.

My intention is to attempt to perpetuate the rather grand tradition of this sage by examining the religious philosophical implications of modern day science and to see how they challenge or reinforce our traditional views, beginning with the basics of Einstein’s special theory of relativity and concluding with the quantum mystery.

An introduction to the special theory of relativity.
Imagine you’re on a spacecraft and another spacecraft passes you speeding away at the difference in your respective speeds. But that relative increase in speed will not be true in respect to a laser launched from a nearby space station as that laser flashes past you at the speed of light. Despite accelerating the speed of your spaceship you notice you can make no impression on the speed at which the laser pulls away from you at an indicated speed of light. Puzzled you retry the experiment to soon realize the laser always disappears from view at the speed of light regardless of your spacecraft’s speed.
If you able to understand the reason for this then you can understand the special theory of relativity.

Einstein correctly concluded that since nothing can exceed the speed of light all of our motions through space will be relative to that absolute, so that any observations of the speed of light will be the same wherever you are. Hence the speed of the laser will always be observed at travelling at the speed of light.
We are all familiar with the concept of a game of table tennis noting it takes the same time for the ball to pass over the net when playing a game in a fast moving train as it does for a game played on the platform. If you carried out an experiment measuring electromagnetic waves you would get the same result.
However for an observer on the station looking into the fast moving train this is not the case since the trains speed plus the speed of the ball will equal the total speed of the ball as far he is concerned. The actual speed of the ball is the same for all observers but it is relative to motion whilst light for any observer anywhere will always only be seen as the same absolute speed of light.
Hence all of the laws of science are the same to all observers regardless of their location in space after allowing for gravitational effects.

Einstein’ discovery paved the way for this conclusion (which however will be challenged later on) and hence our observations are relative to our motion through space except for the combination of space and time termed space-time. After discovering the special theory of relativity Einstein incorporated the gravitational field effects which cause warping within his general theory of relativity.

A brief excursion into the slippery concept of time differences.
The obvious conclusion following on from the theory of special relativity is that any movement through space reduces our time in space to the point theoretically once you have reached the absolute speed of light time becomes frozen.
Time + motion through space = speed of light.
Therefore if motion is represented by the speed of light then time must equal zero
This idea of course in reality is quite farcical since any object travelling through space at that speed would develop such an unimaginative amount of mass as would be almost the equivalent of all matter already present in the entire universe.
However there is a relative difference for all of us depending on our motion through space but the miniscule differences on planet earth can effectively be ignored and we can feel comfortable with our outdated Newtonian view of time. We can have no doubt however as to the soundness of the theory since it is has been independently verified by extremely accurate atomic clocks stationed on board aircraft. Spend your entire life flying in planes and you will be younger than your comparable walker but the differences are so small that on your death bed the flyer would scarcely have the additional time to think about even saying a few ‘Hail Mary’s’.
However in the vast distances of space the effects can be calculated to show huge disparities.

Returning to our spacecraft to imagine in the future we have discovered a way to travel at close to the speed of light to find some remarkable consequences. Since our motion at close to the speed of light drastically reduces our time in space any prolonged space journey lasting a number of years will require us to wind forward our clocks hundreds of thousands of years on reentry into planet earth.
But our stay at home earthlings have long since perished as those who welcome us home are thousands of generations later than those present when we left. That is because time has not slowed for them as it has for the space travelers whilst the biological aging is no different for either group.
Spacecraft intrepid travelers slow space time is only point one ( .1) with motion at 99.9.
Whilst for the stay at home earthlings earth time is 99.8 plus with motion at point two (.2)

These are simply arbitrary numbers I have chosen to help illustrate my point.

Can we draw any religious philosophical conclusions?
Since the universe is subject to unique laws which unfolded miraculously in exact sequences to allow life to form one can posit that we are the product of a creation in an evolving mystery which I think can only leave us in state of wonderment.
For me there is abundant evidence around us everywhere to indicate that all life and nature itself is simply miraculous. By virtue of the laws of science we can also say we live in the most probable of many possible universes which leads us to reasonably suggest within those predestined routes there only exists causality for freedom of thought or actions or choice. That causality I see as an evolved creation gift which gives us the sense of freedom or free will within the determinism arising from constraints of those predetermined laws.

Although we can measure time we cannot say what it is and can only understand time by combining time with space for the absolute concept of space-time. Accepting for the moment a creator then past present or future becomes irrelevant accepting that for us we remain trapped within what seems to be to us our enclosed universe where time does seem to be indicative of an arrow usually always moving forward except for possibilities inherent in extreme warping effects of gravity.
But so far we have only barely scratched the surface to already reveal our rather tenuous grip on reality and of time.

Understanding classical physics through the application of the quantum
So far we have viewed the universe through the prism of classical physics which can confidently predict planetary movements and space travel to such a degree that we can have confidence in these evidence based outcomes. But if we attempt to understand classical physics through the applications of the quantum (the subatomic level of particles present in the universe) you expose those universal laws to some doubt. Indeed the general theory of relativity which has been demonstrated to be proven correct over time is only valid as it applies to large physical objects but only barely clings on to its integrity when you begin to contemplate the bizarre behaviors of the smallest of those fragile tiny particles known within our universe.

Einstein’s explanation for quantum mechanics ( the probabilities and uncertainties of sub atomic particles known as quantum laws ) where particles split into respective waves or particles to mimic behaviors as if they were still one, regardless of their distances apart, was to say those correlations were due to the underlying properties already inherent in both prior and after disentanglement. In other words these 'spin characteristics ' were integral to the separated particle and its wave function before and after they became separated.

Once again Einstein’s elegant theory seemed plausible enough but other physicists were doubtful. The matter was settled once and for all when Einstein and other brilliant physicists that followed him were all proven to be wrong half a century later. There is now overwhelming evidence for this so called quantum entanglement. (See Brian Greene – 'The Fabric of the Cosmos – Space, time, and the texture of reality').

The search for answers goes on with scientists now entertaining the idea of different dimensions and hidden properties within those minute particles that might provide solutions to the seemingly intractable mysteries. If you believe knowledge is reality (which can’t be proven or disproven) it could be we simply do not have sufficient knowledge about the particles since that knowledge is hidden within another dimension upon which we are not privy. Suffice to say that space may be not as we thought it was but possibly is made up of many more dimensions.
Should any of these extra dimensional theories turn out to be correct it will confirm that at the most fundamental level we do not experience the reality that underpins the universe.
In that sense we can return finally to a religious philosophical view and conclude that hardnosed materialistic evidence based science is now leading us to the view there is a reality beyond all human experience and understanding which may well always be the case. So that trust which is so important in our relationships with others, but so often can be misplaced, is also analogous to the universe, since human experience is not always a good barometer in understanding her rich fabric, bearing in mind - ‘ All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.’

So that all we can do is to have trust in the human spirit and for those who have a religious leaning, an ultimate trust - we need not fear our morality for in death we return home from whence we came.

Saturday, June 19

Lake Eyre- Home to drought and flooding rain

For the first time in excess of 30 years as if by way of a desert illusion Lake Eyre’s estimated 400 to 500 million tons of dry salt pan last year was briefly covered to a depth of 5 meters in water to realize its status as the largest ephemeral lake system in the world simply teeming with new life. For If you were to take just a cup full of soil from below the surface to add water amazingly that small single sample would yield hundreds of varieties of vegetation from the seeds and fish hatchlings from the eggs even after laying dormant for hundreds of years.

The birds were instantly aware of this rare event and swarmed in their multitudes to claim their share of nature’s temporary bounty as scientists scratched their heads to ponder how they were able to locate the water so quickly from so far away. It is estimated that such an event attracts well in excess of half a million water birds to Lake Eyre including even the common variety Seagulls who fly 650 kilometers from the coast to set up their breeding colonies.

But many became stranded in such a short lived bonanza as the last of the youngest new born pelicans left it too late to depart as their food supply rapidly dissipated with the onslaught of evaporation as soaring temperatures in summer inevitably always reach the mid fifties Centigrade or 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Their fate was sealed in the form of piles of bleached white bones to serve as a salutary reminder of nature’s grim reality. By summer all that remained were residues in the highly salty sub lakes as the desert bloomed .

Lake Eyre Basin is the lowest point of the Australian continent to stretch across the most arid area covering a land mass equivalent to the combined area of France, Spain and Portugal and home to only about 60,000 people – principally grazers’, miners and Aboriginals living in small settlements. Many hardy tourists flocked to the region last year to see what they envisaged was a once in a lifetime experience but amazingly this year we are witnessing a repeat performance. Torrential rain in the far North this year caused floodwater to travel down the dry Coopers Creek – to create one of the few remaining pristine occasional wild rivers flowing alongside desert terrain on either side whose rainfall barely manages 5 inches per year before finally filling up Lake Eyre. The birds have returned but avoided last years gatherings postions where some perished, opting instead for narrow island pockets of land within the lake itself.

I wonder if indeed we need to believe in miracles when nature itself seems so miraculous. Click here for pictures. The punt used to traverse the Coopers River was last used over 30 years ago when the dry creek bed was last filed with water.

The Australian landscape I think was essentially captured by possibly our most famous poet Dorothea Mackellar whose poem ’My Country ‘rallied against the prevailing English nostalgia at the time to relish her new found fondness for the Australian landscape. The poem has become an Australian favourite.

The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me!

A stark white ring-barked forest
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon.
Green tangle of the brushes,
Where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops
And ferns the warm dark soil.

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us,
We see the cattle die-
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold-
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land-
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand-
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

Dorothea Mackellar

Sunday, June 6

River cruise

The Watershed ( highest point of the cruise) and presentation of certificates. The stadium in Nuremberg where Hitler addressed his troops and Hitler youth. Castle ruins at Heidelberg.
One of the 60 Castles along the Rhine river gorge.
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River Cruise

Crusing along the Danube through the Wachau valley. The magnificant baroque Cathdreal at Passau and a street scene in Regensberg.
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River cruise

Above is the cathedral at Cologne, the giant monument to celebrate German unification in 1870 and grape growing on the hills below at Rudeshiem.
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Friday, May 28

Au revoir

Our cruise which encompased almost 1900 KM of waterways was over so it was time to say au revoir to those with whom we had shared our meals and many happy exchanges. The cruise linked 3 rivers 5 countries, 4 capitals and 68 locks. By then you are familiar with all of the 115 passengers and crew whose unexpected family friendly atmosphere adds to everyone's good spirits.
Click to enlarge the picture and read the caption of new found friends.
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Au revoir

Betty & Bill were good company with whom we shared many a laugh. Bill as a Canadian seems to have an Australian tendency not to take himself or others too seriously so earnt the nickname Blinky Bill (Blinky Bill was the Koala character of a childrens story ) for seemingly disinterest in long winded stories. Another Australian presented Bill with a Blinky Bill Badge. I will post more pictures once I'm able to sort through our large collection.

Friday, May 21

Heidelberg & other Ports

Interestingly enough on the cruise we have not made friends with the Aussie contingent but rather 2 Canadian couples and others from Florida and California with whom we share breakfasts or sumptuous dinners.

After Wurzburg and Wertheim (largest city of Franconia whose origins date back to 1000 BC) our next scheduled stop was the city of Heidelberg. We docked at Miltemberg for a full day excursion to Heidelberg via a bus trip, to visit the castle and old town. The ship then continued on to Aschaffenburg which we rejoined from Heidelberg via the Autobahn. It costs 3,000 Euro for a drivers license in Germany and drivers are usually well behaved with limits of 80Kpm for Lorries, 100 kph for our Bus and cars wiz past unrestricted on the autobahns up to 240 kph.

Heidelberg is fondly remembered for Sigmund Romberg's 'The Student Prince' but Anne's humming of the tune ' When its Summer time in Heidelberg' was at odds with pouring rain and lush green scenery. Spring is very late coming to Germany this year after an uncharacteristically long severe winter according to the locals. We completed our tour of the castle perched high above the city (312 steps for those keen on walking) which included an interesting visit to a nearby pharmacy museum. The museum provided a comprehensive display of medieval applications based upon the premise of the 4 humours; body, blood, phlegm and black and yellow bile. Depending whether or not you were in balance and having regard to the stars and seasons dictated the treatment to add or detract in such a way to restore equilibrium.

After returning to our boat the weather improved as we left the narrow Main river to enter the busy Rhine and our next port of Rudesheim whose 10.000 inhabitants receive 3,000, 000 visitors each year. We enjoyed a cable car ride up to Niederwald recreational area for a view over the sloping vineyards onto the city located on the opposite bank and land which extends on for a further 200 Km annexed to Germany following the defeat of the French. The impressive Monument erected on the site celebrating German unification in 1871 stands proudly 114 feet tall.

Cruising the Rhine in the afternoon we passed by 56 castles and the dangerously shallow and narrow section known as Lore - Ley which prompted this poem by famous German poet Heinrich Heine. Heinrich Heine

The Lore-Ley

I know not what it should imply, that I am so forlorn;
A tale from times so long gone by
From my thoughts will not be torn.
The air is cool and it darkens,
And the Rhine does calmly flow;
The peak of the mountain sparkles In the sinking sun's last glow.
The most beautiful maiden so alights,
But wondrously up there.
It blazes, her golden bow, She combs her golden hair.
She combs it with golden comb
And thereby sings a song;
A seeming wonder-tome
With a melody violent-strong.
The seaman in his tiny yacht
It grasps with wilding woe,
He looks not at the rock-reefs as he ought,
He looks only up from below.
I believe the swells do devour,
In the end, both skipper and skiff;
Smitten, in his final hour, By the Lore-Ley with her riff.
-- translated Robert Clarke, 2001

Tuesday, May 18


Our next 2 ports were Passau and Regensberg; cities of Celtic origins. In Passau we listened to an excellent organ recital and experienced the mighty power of over 17,000 pipes - the largest over 20 feet and the smallest the size of a thumbnail. The charm and mood of Regensburg was reflected in the sentiment depicted on a large sign -' Better to spend 3 times the amount restoring a 1,000 year old building than to build a new one the same size .'

After Regensburg our landscape changed to one of open meadows en route to Nuremberg via the newly created Main Danube Canal access which flows into the Main River and then into the busy Rhine.We reached the high point of our cruise along the canal at 134o feet (406 metres) above sea level and celebrated with a glass of champagne then presented with an 'A' class sailors certificate by the Captain. Since Budapest sailing was always against the current and assisted by numerous elevated locks but now on our downward leg the situation is reversed until our final docking at Amsterdam which is below sea level.

Excellent features of the cruise are the frequent updates and formal presentations on a variety of topics to keep one informed about forthcoming visits; varying architectural styles and more recently Germany history from the creation of the 3rd Reich to modern day unification between East and West presented by a political scientist. We toured the city of Nuremberg by bus and on foot experiencing the older city sections which were protected against invaders with a high perimeter wall and moat which proved impenetrable during the Middle Ages when ruled by wealthy merchants. The city was also the focal point for the meeting place of Dukes and Counts who swear allegiance to newly crowned Emperors. Seeking to replicate this past seat of power and because of the excellent rail network to everywhere within Germany Nuremberg became the ideological centre for the rallying point of the 3rd Reich. We visited an unfinished Coliseum and the Stadium where Hitler appeared to address the huge rallies of the military and Hitler youth. Our Tour Guide explained that in the first 2 decades after the end of WW2 the dark past was not discussed but then the full history including visits to former Concentration Camps became an integral part of the present day education system.

Our next port was the charming city of Bamberg which is afforded UNESCO listing for its historic medieval buildings which survived untouched by bombing during WW2 - unlike Nuremberg where 93% of the city was destroyed. The Bamberg people have a devotion to St Kunigunde, the wife of King Heinriach 11 and Empress of Bamberg from 1002, who they believe caused a cloud cover to prevent bombing

Friday, May 14

River Cruise continued

Vienna, inhabited by 1.7 million, lived up to expectations as the cultural capital of Europe; everywhere there are the reminders of the rich history such as the Hapsburg dynasty, Franz Joseph - but none more so than in music ; Figarohaus where Mozart received a visit from Hayden and where a young Beethoven first applied for music lessons.

We visited many historical places of interest but our highlight was the evening concert performed in the same building where Strauss first performed his waltzes. The splendid concert was presented in the original style of Joseph Lanner and Strauss who led the orchestra from the first violin. The ever popular tunes played included those from the golden era of Viennese Operetta such as the "the Bat' and Gypsy Baron and was complemented by individually sung arias from Mozart.

After we sailed from Vienna we docked later at Melk for a visit to the monastery.Melk monastery was fashioned in the baroque style which was designed for high emotional appeal- which is evident in its dazzling decorative architecture. The monks have lived and worked in the Abby for over 900 years which today is also used as a school for 800 students. Today it is occupied by 30 monks and the Abby attracts 600,000 visitors each year.

Tuesday, May 11


Currently we are in Budapest to soon commence our river cruise to Amsterdam after flying in from Singapore. We noticed the expansion in Singapore since last there in 1983 whose population is now about the same as Victoria. The expansion has been up (high rise) since the small island land mass means it only takes you 40 minutes to drive from one end to the other. Getting around is easy with an excellent rail and bus system costing only $2 a day.The locals were friendly with mainly Chinese complemented with Malay and Indian influences to reflect traditional Asian values which tend to be more rules based than western systems. Even so a young man flashed by as we were walking under a bypass oblivious to the large $1,000 fine intended for those who failed to dismount.We enjoyed our stay to experience the best of the old and new with a river cruise and to view the incredible display at the Asian Cultural Museum.

Today we visited Budapest which is a city of 2 million and the capital of Hungary. In reality it is an amalgamation of 3 older cities with the not so blue Danube separating distinct cultural areas.The oldest city was Obuda built on the site once occupied by the Roman town of Aquinicum and boasts 123 hot springs. The Danube separates Pest - the largest of the three which is medieval in character with a fortress wall and houses the main business centre located on the eastern bank. Budda is located on the western bank built after the Mongol invasion in 1241.Our next port is Vienna

Monday, April 26

Mission possible

It’s virtually impossible to adequately price risk when one is unaware of pertinent information and when rating agencies assign AAA credit ratings to securities that were in effect the equivalent of junk Bonds. The logical prudent action is to avoid investing where there is a lack of information but what we saw at the frenzied height of activity just prior to the Global Financial Crisis was the abandonment of any form of formalised risk assessment practices. Firms and investors and even government agencies consumed by greed threw caution to the wind as successive ‘Collateralized Debt Obligations’ were sliced into so many sub categories that millions of pages of text would need to be read to satisfactorily understand the underlying risk.

Many of these instruments traded such as the so called ‘Synthetic Collateralized Debt Obligations’ were extremely complex and offered investors a share in the issuance proceeds of credit default swaps which resemble a form of Insurance. How they worked was to distribute to eager investors the proceeds from issue whilst investors remained liable for any subsequent losses or defaults in the underlying securities. This was roughly the equivalent to an underwriter in insurance providing cover in exchange for receiving a premium within varying risk rated tranches.

There were many large players and one notable insurer engaged in this practice, with just a select few in the know whilst others remained permanently in the dark. Overall it is fair to say there was no free market where information was available to make any rational decisions or to attempt to adequately price risk. Many analogies have been attempted to explain the position, likening it to selling someone a house whilst conspiring to cause arson, or selling cars with faulty brakes whilst inviting others to underwrite insurance on their roadworthiness against having an accident.

The opportunity for conflicts of interest and or fraud under such an opaque system are all too obvious and especially prevalent when a firm chooses to simultaneously engage in proprietary trading (in house) in relation to those same securities – in the recent case with Goldman Sachs it is alleged by the SEC that Goldman deliberately either betted against those securities sold or knew of others so engaged (Hedge Funds) whilst continuing to sell large amounts to uninformed buyers. It is surprising there are not many more actions like this undertaken by the SEC by now, considering the sheer volume of short selling and the value of synthetics actively traded, which grossly exceeded the world’s gross national product. I understand there are about 50 probes still under consideration.

But understandably there has been a reluctance to use the word fraud and deception and instead make reference to oblique innocuous suggestions about inappropriate gearing and market exuberance. It is also interesting to note the SEC commissioners only narrowly voted 3 to 2 in favour of the lawsuit proceeding, with the 2 Republican commissioners voting against. Let’s hope this ushers in a new era where fraud is no longer tolerated and recognised readily for what it is. But that will be cold comfort for the many sophisticated Investors such as pension funds, insurance companies and large banks who suddenly lost more than $1.8 trillion dollars as a consequence of the worst economic crisis since WW I1.

The popular idea 'caveat emptor' applies is also deservedly losing creditability as it was not only investors who lost large sums of money but substantial sums were also contributed from taxpayers’ funds. The SEC for the past several decades has preferred ‘settled’ cases which have avoided what might otherwise be a prolonged lawsuit against the big Wall Street investment banks, that have moved on after paying penalties and managed to avoid damaging bad publicity. Hopefully those days are past and we see a re-energised regulator capable of instilling more confidence into a fully transparent system.

That system has been far too highly incentivised to become too reliant on short term trading gains. Some good people can become part of a corrupted system to the extent they fail to exercise sufficient resolve to ensure integrity is maintained and pretend ‘caveat emptor’ is perfectly okay within the market place. There is nothing new in the idea of a group of people making unethical decisions under the “psychological umbrella” of a peer pressure group, particularly when those actions are either sanctioned or given the seal of approval by a charismatic leader.

The fact is the whole system was out of kilter and a blight by any measure on good governance and corporate social responsibility. The original concepts involved issuance of securities that were imbedded with CDS’s so that the issuer profited from both the issue and their subsequent demise for two bites of the cherry. What was entertained from their very first embryonic creation might have been clever but ultimately was representative of the brainchild of those who were oblivious to any sense of corporate social responsibility.

The rules of engagement need a very thorough revision. I might add that those who defend proprietary trading are starting to look less and less credible. But central to all of this is the notion that the GFC arose because of a lack of integrity and trading designed to profit the few who were in the know about future catastrophic losses.

Probably the most important but least afforded attention for the current administration contemplating financial reform packages concerns transparency. You can’t legislate morality but you can make it obligatory for a seller to disclose all pertinent information. That sort of principle has long been embedded to determine a price for risk – otherwise it is mission impossible.

This brings me back to the heading “mission possible” and what positive aspects can we assert going forward for a post-GFC world in the provision of financial services. Future success rests on two important planks; to ensure a degree of transparency so that derivatives are traded on a recognised market and that there is obligation to provide all available information pertaining to those securities, including any commissions or interests declared by the seller in such instruments. That might sound all rather simplistic but all busts and fraudulent intent are best thwarted by an open and transparent system.

Corruption always flourishes given excessive secrecy to benefit the few and generally is accompanied by misallocations and poor economic performance. Citizen’s would like to think their savings channeled into investments would reap better returns than bank interest , but this decade has been one of the worst since WW 2.

But the future is not mission impossible, since already there are encouraging signs with the percentage of private savings increasing and consumption falling away markedly. I think there is good chance countries like the United States and other debtor countries will continue to save more, import less and export more than would otherwise be the case. If this favorable trend continues – notwithstanding the extreme misery of current record unemployment - there is no reason why the next decades could be significantly better economically and socially than the last decade. Already instead of 47% of the brightest students electing to try their hand at the business related courses we have less than 20% so that maybe we are already seeing the beginnings in a change in culture.

A turnaround in fortunes towards a more equitable society is a mission possible for the next decade.

Sunday, April 4

Sound Recordings of my Father in Concert with the RAAF Glee Singers 1943

Further to my Australia Day posting I have now obtained a copy of the original sound recordings of the RAAF Glee Singers who performed at a concert in Australia House, on Australia Day, in London in 1943!

The sound recordings were obtained for me kindly from the Australian War Memorial and to listen click here. Click on any of the songs listed.

As previously mentioned my father served as a bomber pilot in the Second World War and the group photos (in my previous post) of the RAAF Glee Singers was taken directly from the Australian War Museum archives. Read more here

Friday, March 26

Creative accounting

It need not come as a surprise the recent revelations in creative accounting emanating from the US Bankruptcy Court about the non-disclosure in Lehman Brothers accounts of about $50 billion in obligations to repurchase securities sold in exchange for temporary funding lasting only a few days. The only real surprise was the amount of money involved and the blatant nature of the omissions.

The non-disclosure of these arrangements was made easier because of the development of creative accounting practices within the financial services industry where sales of securities to counterparties were no more than the equivalent of a short-term funding arrangement using the security sold as collateral. Simple in execution, a sale of securities (collateralized debt securities) was in consideration for cash paid by a counterparty after deducting interest, but only on the proviso of a future obligation to buy back those same securities in a few days time. In effect all you are gaining is a temporary funding and paying a high interest cost deducted from the sales proceeds. However in reality each time the repurchase agreement became due inevitably another would be executed so that the cash flow acquisition of long term dated securities was subject to inappropriate short term funding covering just a few days. The purchaser could opt to make a margin call (ask for more money) should the underlying securities fall in value or simply decide not to allow any future funding. In the case of Lehman Bros repurchase obligations amounting to $50 billion were not revealed in the accounts nor was that omission uncovered by the auditors.

Although one looks aghast at the size and extent of such practices one need not be surprised since creative accounting pressures have infiltrated other industries throughout the globe driven by the rewards available in circumventing the law or spirit of the law. When I was working as a Financial Controller, I was often in the invidious position of having to defend vigorously one’s integrity in resisting overtures to adopt creative accounting which contravened regulatory provisions or the spirit of such provisions. Simply put you have a choice as to whether or not you opt to maintain good governance and utmost integrity to be applied in a principled manner and to be reflective always in the accounts of the company to provide a true and fair view.

However for the minority who succumb or are complicit in creative accounting the catalyst is oft carefully crafted legal input designed to exploit regulatory loopholes or the spirit of the law to render advantage to the few at the expense of the majority. At the other end of the scale we are all familiar with the less sophisticated more blatant forms of corruption involving secret commissions and bribes to drive inefficiency and misallocation of resources and create the conditions for impoverished economic outcomes.

But at the heart of these issues of varying degrees of sophistication is the ripple down effects of corruption of government officialdom whose use of creative accounting and non disclosures would easily have been stopped in its track’s given the application of half decent internal controls. Invariably all of the exposed failures we read about are from within organizations where internal audit and/or control scarcely existed or was woefully lacking. Creative Instruments developed by many leading US banks allowed politicians to mask additional borrowing in Greece, Italy and most likely in many other countries by receiving an upfront payment in return for forgoing future revenue streams which were then swapped for debt liabilities. The accounting entries involved are not complicated and by all accounts elected officials were lining up eagerly to postpone the reality of the financial mess their country was in. The creative accounting employed made the position look as if they were reducing public debt when in effect they were assigning away future revenue streams in exchange for a fee which was then offset against those public debts.

Creative accounting has always been a temptation in the world but has taken on larger proportions since the real power today resides much more with the large corporations and their CEO’s who play a key pivotal role in exercising that influence.

The modern day corporation hopefully will aspire to not only build sustainable shareholder wealth but to also ensure they exercise good governance. We are fortunate in Australia to have so far largely avoided much of the excesses that applied overseas but have inevitably experienced the flow-on effects since we are an integral part of the global economy.

We have witnessed the failures of the dot-com bubble and the Enron scandal that preceded the GFC – the latter becoming perilously close to a great depression to prompt a clarion call for improved governance. But that clarion call would not have been necessary had the CEOs of those failed companies acted with integrity and ensured adequate internal controls operated across their organizations.

Our evolution has always been more dependent upon survival through co-operation – not on survival of the fittest as evolution’s most misquoted quote suggests – since the way forward so far as our evolution is concerned has always depended upon co-operative efforts, so that CEO’s are coaches and are not solely responsible for the success or otherwise of the corporation. Occasionally you will have psychotic or narcissistic leaders who temporarily prosper but inevitably others will need to step up to the plate and make a stand for integrity which is not always easy. But in the end for inequities to flourish the legal profession has to engage its resources in continually finding loopholes outside the spirit of the law just as there needs to be those who support the presentation of misleading accounts, to be prepared to compromise integrity and to avoid taking a stand against unprincipled practices for a lack of integrity to continue. We all have the power to ensure we act with integrity and for shareholders to demand it at meetings and to ensure that safeguards are apparent within organizational structures.

Governance systems need to ensure responsibility and power is more evenly spread across organizations to place more reliance on leaders as coaches and not in the foolish culture as if they are the equivalent of individual rock stars and or superstars.

Sunday, February 28

Living with HIV/AIDS

AIDS according to the United Nations remains the most deadly disease for sub Saharan Africa where it is estimated 22 million of the 33 million worldwide sufferers reside. Living with HIV/ AIDS not long ago was an early death sentence with ruinous consequences for the people of the region and their economies. In our earlier communications with the communities in Malawi it was evident the disease was having a devastating impact which, combined with poor harvests presented a dire outcome and a less than optimistic view for the country‘s future.

But whilst I was in Malawi last year it was already evident that vastly improved health outcomes are now a reality due to the effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs provided free by the government. If the drug is taken in conjunction with a nutritional diet then the HIV/ AIDS sufferer in all likelihood in many cases will look forward to the equivalent of an almost normal life. The pall over Malawi had lifted together with improved agricultural outcomes which meant for the first time in decades a surplus maize crop was available for export.

The history as to how this all came about has been very slow but also encouraging.
The effective yet very expensive antiretroviral drugs were available to richer countries in 1996. The developing countries were to wait for many years later when finally in 1999, after a good deal of buttressing; a license was finally approved to produce an inexpensive generic version in South Africa. Subsequently four leading drug companies offered cheap drugs to the developing countries. Significant funding was provided in 2001 by the creation of the Global Fund to fight AIDs, tuberculosis and malaria. Click here to visit their website.

The United States which was the then funds largest contributor set up additionally the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief which authorized $48 billion dollars in 2008 spread over 5 years, with Ireland contributing a further $25 billion in the same year. ‘Developments in the fight against AIDS’ Editorial – Africa – St Patrick’s Missions –Ireland February 2010

Whilst in Africa I listened to many people’s stories, including that of a grandmother, whose experience was typical of many in their community in terms of church, faith and children. It wasn’t until later that I learned that her husband had died the previous year from HIV/AIDS. She was also infected and acknowledged her past sorrow, but lived a joyful existence. She had let go of her physical suffering and, by focusing on the spiritual, transcended her past sorrow for present joy. While we have great concern for her and the many others, including orphans, who carry a heavy burden through no fault of their own, their joyful spirits, unimpeded by the severe material hardships they endure, remain a true testament to their faith.
The full article I wrote about The Warm Heart of Africa is to be published in the April edition of 'Africa' by St Patrick's Missionary Society with a number of photos addtional to that which was featured earlier in the catholic newspaper Kairos, click here. should it be of interest.

Meanwhile on a global scale efforts continue: Gaborone/Geneva, 18 February 2010 –‘United Nations AIDS’ is calling for an international effort to renew commitment for countries to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. Countries are urged to undertake an open and inclusive consultation process—bringing together governments, development partners, civil society organizations, networks of people living with HIV and community groups to review the progress made in reaching country targets for universal access. UNAIDS will support countries and regional bodies in convening these reviews.
The call to action was made by UNAIDS Executive Director Mr. Michel Sidibé while on an official visit to Botswana.

But the global downturn is affecting the flow of funds into the global AIDS programs which may lead to a decline in many countries.

It is crucial that the governments, churches and voluntary organizations redouble their efforts to prevent new infections and to continue to facilitate treatment and care for those already suffering the effects of the disease.
"Hopeful Developments in the fight against AIDS" -Editorial – Africa – St Patrick’s Missions –Ireland February 2010

Saturday, February 6

Playing by the rules

New regulations recently proposed for publically listed US financial institutions aim to prohibit proprietary trading (that is trading by the bank for the bank rather than on behalf of clients) and restrict investments by those public institutions in hedge funds. In a further recently mooted change hedge fund and private equity traders are to be subject to ordinary income tax rates, in lieu of the lower capital gains tax rate that currently applies to their free equity stakes.These long overdue proposed changes once implemented will limit banks ability to place bets on the markets and reduce some of the speculative trading which featured in the global financial crisis.

A recent poll indicated 77% of investors thought such measures were anti –business and a number of business luminaries continue to be critical of the Obama administration citing the probability for tightening of business credit as an unintended consequence. Personally I think such moves will prove to be very positive for the banking sector, and, combined with recently announced increased support for community banking will not impinge on banking services as feared.

However no effective changes have been announced in response to the more critical causes for the prior global financial collapse which was due to the unprecedented growth in leveraged non transparent derivative trading and particularly in the form of credit default swaps. It was the subsequent failure of counterparties dealing in these instruments, which precipitated the turmoil and collapse in markets and these new measures fail to address these issues excepting that public firms will now be prohibited from taking a principal position in trading firms involved. Credit default swaps continue to be traded under a system where virtually no rules exist over their issuance or in market transparency.

How do they work? –

There is a price paid by a buyer to a seller for cover for a bond or a loan where the seller is liable in the event of a defined event termed a default. Hence the buyer buys protection from a seller in consideration for a future payment if a bond or loan defaults whose events are generally defined as bankruptcy, restructuring or due to a credit rating downgrade.

However this seemingly innocuous idea for parties wishing to cover their exposure to loans or bonds is far removed from the typical Credit default swap which operates in the market today. The amount typically paid is a measure of the decrease in the market value of the referenced obligation arising from a credit event, usually without any regard to whether a holder actually suffers a loss. This has lead to the market participants to characterize credit default swaps as “covered" or "naked." A "covered" CDS refers to a transaction in which the protection buyer has an economic exposure which is more in line with sensible commercial principles. However virtually all credit default swaps provide that the parties to the swap need not own the referenced obligations.

The "naked" Credit Default Swap is where the protection buyer does not own or have economic exposure whatsoever to the underlying instrument.

Furthermore Credit default swaps can be used to mitigate the risk of defaults in a debt portfolio market value where a holder of a bond, may hedge exposure risk by buying protection in a Credit Default Swap with respect to that bond. Should the bond default, the proceeds from the Credit Default Swap will cover the resulting decrease in market value of the underlying bond. But if the bond subsequently recovers value, as is oft the case the Credit Default Swap protection buyer will have received reimbursements despite the fact he never suffered a loss.

By now it is apparent to even the most casual observers Credit Default Swaps although touted as resembling insurance policies are vastly different in a number of critical areas; E.g.

  1. There is no requirement to actually hold any asset or suffer any loss as payments can be triggered for various events, providing an opportunity for coercion and market manipulation.
  2. There is often no insurable interest between the parties or any incentive not to make claims. Traditional insurance seeks to work out schemes of arrangements with defaulters or to help mitigate respective party losses. There is usually an element of a self insurance loss in any financial or trade insurance which mitigates against fraud or prior inadequate disclosure of the risk.
  3. The parties can profit in the demise of a company. It is often in the interest of the holder to hasten the firm’s demise as the holder stands to profit from such an event. Hence the opportunity for market manipulation.
  4. Prudential requirements do not apply to the issuer of these instruments and a highly geared hedge fund can sell a large amount of credit default swaps without the need to have mandated reserves to cover any subsequent losses which may be higher than anticipated.

One might well ask how such reckless arrangements to open the door to coercion and market manipulation could ever come into existence in the public company arena in the first place.

A significant milestone on the road to the ensuing chaos occurred in 2000, when Congress passed a piece of seemingly innocuous legislation called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which made derivatives off-limits to agencies that regulate stocks, bonds and futures contracts and was subsequently signed into law in December 2000. The reality of such legislature to exempt regulatory control was to open the door to a form of derivative trading which was to inflict havoc in markets and lead to some of the worst market excesses in 60 years and subsequent failure of counterparties.

An interesting analogy would be to exempt a sport temporarily so that the rules are, there are no rules. I would suggest severe chaotic outcomes would be experienced immediately since inevitably some form of guidelines is required for any game together with the desire to appoint an umpire. Democracy is after all a system that depends upon fair and equitable distribution where players play by the rules, the alternative being corruption and acceptance of that corruption as your corrupt way of life.

Let’s hope eventually, in addition to the recent moves we also see a return to common sense regulatory measures.

Wednesday, January 27

Australia Day 1943

Yesterday was Australia Day which has been celebrated by Australians as a holiday since 1939. The above photos feature my late father (deceased 1969) in a group portrait of eight RAAF members of a Glee Party performing at a concert at Australia House, London on Australia Day 1943. My father served as a bomber pilot in the Second World War and information below and the photos have been taken directly from the Australian War Museum archives.

Caption below the first picture : Their concert songs were received with great enthusiasm by the audience. Identified from left to right: pianist Pilot Officer (PO) Hamilton Roland Dacre Budd (pilot) from Broken Hill, NSW (died 1 August 1943 on operations over the Atlantic Ocean); Frank Sutton Walker (observer) from Wellington, NSW; Squadron Leader (Sqn Ldr) Harry Clifford Thrush (chaplain) from Adelaide, South Australia; Sqn Ldr Gordon Gladstone Wood (chaplain) from Wellington, NSW who conducted the choir (died 18 June 1944 in UK); Sergeant (Sgt) Charles Keith Byrnes (pilot) from Moree, NSW; George Claud Notman (observer) from Skipton, Victoria; PO Donald Zalva Pile (pilot) from Melbourne, Victoria (died 26 October 1943 in Scotland); and PO Leslie Walter Roper (pilot) from Melbourne (died 4 September 1943 on operations over Germany).

The subsequent fatalities listed above are a salutary reminder of the high death rate attributable to RAAF command in which my father flew Wellington Bombers. Losses of about 5% per operation gave little chance of survival after a stint of 30 operations.

Earlier on the 3rd January 1943 my father made 6 records for the BBC which took 3 hours to record and included light and popular numbers - ‘I'll Walk Beside You’, ‘Old King Cole’, ‘Pass Me By’ and the beautiful anthem ‘Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace’. The BBC were very pleased and called in some reporter to take pictures for the papers. My father’s diary mentions that Air marshal Williams made a special trip to the studios to hear the records and was very pleased.

In later life the war had influenced my father and my mother knew this and made allowances that today would seem inconceivable. If you would like to read a story about that click on the title or the link icon next to the title.
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