Thursday, 28 September 2017

C. S. Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress

Is it possible to change merely by hearing the word spoken?

The suggestion in C.S.Lewis's allegory The Pilgrim's Regress is that the quick way across the ravine from the intellectual desert of the 20th century to the island paradise is by Old Mother Kirk, in other words, the Church. But for some reason the hero, John, does not take that route.

The island paradise is glimpsed by John towards the beginning of the book. This island paradise is not a mere fantasy or daydream, rather it is a glimpse of the truth. Its nature is not defined, but I take it to mean the real Self, the heart of the world, the still small voice. John has a memory of reality. As you can see, my own ability to describe it in words fails, because it is one of those things that is prior to words, as I have discussed previously here and here.

My feeling is that simply hearing the word spoken is not enough - we must strive to understand it and to put it into practice. No amount of theoretical understanding about the chemistry and techniques of cooking can make us into chefs nor can a Haynes manual make us into car mechanics - we have to get our hands dirty and do it. The theory helps of course and is often essential, but it is nothing without practice. That is where real understanding comes from.

Yet hearing a sacred text spoken at least opens up thought, often a thought more useful than the many thoughts that come from other sources. And if we see something different in the text than is in the sermon, that too can be useful.

We are bombarded with thoughts and opinions, many of them without merit, mere opinion based on nothing. Some of these impressions are simply nasty, not something we would wish to become. Our mental and emotional lives are made of the stuff which we allow to come into us. To put ourselves in the way of hearing and seeing something better, whether at church or elsewhere, must change us.

Whether it will do more than change us, whether it will lead us to the island, will almost certainly require practice as well.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

How to prevent terrorism on the tube

Could the Parsons Green bomber have been stopped by citizen action? Quite possibly.

We could widen our attention as little children do and probably spies do, too.

We all like to lose ourselves in our mobile phones or books on the usually uncomfortable tube ride to work. So if someone gets on the tube with a bomb and then leaves it there we are unlikely to notice it. What if we all took notice of our surroundings? Not necessarily all the time but just at stations, and note who gets on, what baggage they are carrying, and who gets off and whether they have forgotten their bag.

If only ten percent of us did this then the risk of a repeat incident on the tube would be much less.

I have the number of British Transport Police listed on my phone under BTP. Thus it would take at most six keystrokes to call them (phone - contacts - BTP - call). The number is 61016. If you commute in London, put it on your phone now, and stay alert at stations.

This also gives us opportunities to come into the present moment and out of the mist of imagination in which we dream into work.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Jane Austen on the banknotes, as predicted by Milton Marmalade

As predicted on page 198 of my magnum opus, A Mermaid in the Bath, as of 14th September there will be a picture of Jane Austen on the ten pound note.

This is a further demonstration of the inspired nature of my oeuvre.

From page 198 of the paperback edition:

...Half way through Milton addresses himself to you with the words ‘gentle reader... .’ Who does he think he is, Jane Austen? Anyway I hope they put her picture on the banknotes as it’s about time we had a woman on there. Mind you the Queen is on all of them isn’t she? Talking of Jane Austen, that would have been a good name for a car in the heyday of the British Motor Corporation, instead of the Austin Cambridge, like. Then the Morris Oxford would have been Jane Morris. As you no doubt know, Jane Morris was the muse of the Pre-Raphaelites. It must be nice being a muse and getting all that male attention.

Goodness, this Argentine wine is good! I’m feeling quite inspired now. Perhaps I’ll write that bodice-ripper myself and then I can ask Milton to help me with it while I snuggle up to him. Once I’m back in England. And I’m not living in a shed at the back of the Co-op. He’ll have to get a proper house.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

The mysteries of cryptocurrencies

You can buy this mermaid print using Bitcoin

Is the electronic currency Bitcoin the borderless currency of the future?

From time to time I may share with you my understanding, such as it is, of Bitcoin and alternative digital currencies, sometimes called cryptocurrencies. You can take this as a starting point for your own enquiries if you wish, and whether you agree or not with what I write, if you have something to add to the discussion you are very welcome to comment.

Bitcoin is a digital currency on what is called a distributed ledger. This means that the record of who owns what and all transactions are held electronically on computers all over the world. There is no central banker. The system is designed for peer-to-peer transactions, that is, ordinary folk buying from and selling to each other without banking interference and across borders. Also if, for example, you lose your virtual wallet (for example, you own Bitcoin in your smartphone and your smartphone is lost), as long as you have your code words you can get your money back.

Currently the UK, USA and most if not all countries of the world use fiat currencies, that is, money not backed by precious metals. The USA left the gold standard in 1971 (Mervyn King, The End of Alchemy, Abacus 2017 p.73) as did Britain temporarily in 1797 when at war with France and permanently in 1931 (ibid. pp.75-6). Fiat currencies allow governments to print money whenever it seems useful to do so, whether to fund a war or to get the country out of economic difficulty.

One problem with fiat currencies is that if they get out of control, hyperinflation can occur, rendering money virtually worthless, as happened during the Weimar republic and more recently in Zimbabwe. In such times people who hold gold can do well, because gold holds its value as the supply is limited. Limited supply is also a feature of the digital currency Bitcoin.

Holding gold is difficult, partly because it has to be stored somewhere and at some cost and partly because it has somehow to be converted into fiat currency in order to spend it. Bitcoin can be held securely in a number of ways including on a smartphone and can also be held off-line and so secure from hackers. It can be converted into many fiat currencies on-line, and a very small number of businesses world-wide will accept it. Its value in terms of most (but not all) fiat currencies suffers from extreme volatility, but on average its value as measured against fiat currencies has trended very much upwards up until now. (Where it will go next is not something I'd like to predict, because I wouldn't want to get the blame if it all goes wrong.) Interestingly Bitcoin is much less volatile when measured against currencies in crisis, such as the Venzuelan bolĂ­var.

What effect the large-scale adoption of Bitcoin would have on the world economy is difficult to imagine. It would allow borderless transactions between ordinary people without going through a bank and without having to pay currency conversion and transmission charges.

One thing that is holding it back now is that a little bit of research is needed for an ordinary person to understand exactly what Bitcoin is, and storing it requires a little bit of technical know-how. Another thing holding it back is lack of sufficient speed in the system to support the number of transactions that major card companies do every day (a complex topic which is covered elsewhere) and a third problem is the lack of charge cards or debit cards that can be used to pay with Bitcoin.

If it were possible to have a charge card that would convert the Bitcoin held on it into the local fiat currency on the fly (that is, without the intermediary of a bank) to pay for goods at a contactless or chip-and-pin checkout then I believe Bitcoin would take off.

There are a large number of debit or charge cards available that claim to be able to let you pay with Bitcoin, but as I understand it for the most part these cards require you to convert Bitcoin into fiat currency in order to load them up, and they cost money to use. Therefore this leads to the same old bank charges for cash withdrawal and currency conversion. I cannot see the point of them.

A true Bitcoin card would do currency conversion via an on-line Bitcoin exchange. The only contactless Bitcoin payment system I've found that comes close to a true peer-to-peer system doesn't actually exist yet: it will be an app that you have on your smartphone. In this case you send as much in Bitcoin as you want to spend that day to the address on the app. The Bitcoin is converted to your local currency using a peer-to-peer trading network and is then available to spend using your smartphone for contactless payments. It remains to be seen whether you will be able to change your preferred fiat currency easily within the app (for example when travelling). This is not a product recommendation but it certainly looks interesting. If I were to use it I'd only put as much on it as I was likely to use in a day or so, since funds held on-line are at least in theory vulnerable to hacking or the system organisers closing down and running off with the money, not that I have any reason to suspect that particular organisation.

Anyway, as an experiment I have created a page on OpenBazaar (a peer-to-peer alternative to eBay - perhaps one day) to sell some artist's prints in exchange for payment in Bitcoin (see illustration at the top of this post). So far I have not become rich (or actually sold anything) but it's early days. My next hurdle is to set up an old computer to be a server so that I can have my page on-line all the time.

All comments and questions welcome.

[Disclaimer: I am merely passing on my own understanding and hoping to start a debate. I do not claim to have expert knowledge and no-one should base any financial decisions on what I have written, nor do the links provided necessarily imply a recommendation (except that Mervyn King's book, which is not about Bitcoin, is very good).]