Wonga is “morally wrong”?

Non-beardy says “I’ve met the head of Wonga and I’ve had a very good conversation and I said to him quite bluntly we’re not in the business of trying to legislate you out of existence, we’re trying to compete you out of existence” (see-also the Gruan). When I first heard this while driving into work I mis-heard it (or slightly more accurately, at that point the news was new, and exactly what he meant by this wasn’t clear): I thought the CofE were intending to actually loan out money, on a commercial-but-nicer basis. Thankfully they aren’t going to do that: it would most certainly have been a total disaster (remember the Church Commissioners financial ineptitude). In principle I applaud his stated intent of out-competing rather than out-legislating them; that would be, in principle, the way to demonstrate that your system is better. But I think that while he might actually do some good, overall he is doomed.

[N.b.: while everyone in the current version of this argument is using Wonga in the generic sense that “Hoover” means vaccuum cleaner, AFAIK they are just one of several such “pay-day lenders”.]

It fairly soon emerged that the CofE actually hold a stake in Wonga, albeit indirectly. That doesn’t directly affect the argument; but it would be a hint to the wise that modern finance is more complex that back in the good old days of clearing the moneylenders out of the temple.

I visited the CofE website to see if they’d laid out their plans carefully there, but they hadn’t. So I decided to use the FT to work out what they are proposing. First of all, there is some rhetoric, or perhaps scene-setting if you’re more generous:

Justin Welby, a former finance executive in the oil industry, has described lenders such as Wonga as “morally wrong” and has compared the industry to Old Testament usurers.

This, too, is a hint to the wise that they’re on the wrong path: traditionally the fight against usury has been a fight against reality. Even now the stricter bits of the Muslim world have absurd bits of financial engineering that dress up interest in order to pretend that it isn’t. But on to the plans:

Dr Welby has… laid out plans to help 500 financial co-operatives, which already provide small loans, to expand their reach by using the Church’s 16,000 premises. He said he was embarking on a “decade-long process” to make credit unions both more engaged in their communities and “much more professional”. He has already launched a new credit union for clergy and church staff at the General Synod in York earlier this month.

This might do some modest good. I have no personal experience of this stuff, but I can easily believe that there are a number of financially-pressed folk who could do with useful advice, and possibly some actual help.

However, I strongly suspect that there is also a block of people who have a reasonable understanding of what is going on, and simply need a loan, and no-one else is going to give it to them, which is why they go to the likes of Wonga. And if you’re making smallish loans to financially pressed people with little or no collateral, then you’re going to have high expenses and you need to make money to cover the inevitable default rate (see-also Timmy). I haven’t checked, but I rather doubt that Wonga is making ginormous profits. If it was, it wouldn’t be for long, as others would pile into the sector and margins would fall. If it isn’t making enormous profits, then its margins aren’t excessive. QED.

But I have to admit, Dr Welby is a model of sanity compared to idiot politicians such as:

Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who has campaigned for a cap on credit costs and a wider crackdown on payday lenders, welcomed Dr Welby’s intervention, but said: “It should not take divine intervention to deal with this problem. It is very easy to fix.”

You have to be a complete moron, or a complete liar, to assert that this problem is “very easy to fix”.

[Update: I’m pleased to say that the Tories, fed up with falling behind in the talking-utter-drivel stakes, have made a late – and, it looks to me, winning – entry in the “Oh good grief I really can’t believe that even a politician would be dumb enough to say that” competition:

Church should consider pulling money out of Google, government adviser says… Claire Perry, a Tory MP and David Cameron’s adviser on childhood, went a step further by urging the Church and other investors in Google to “put their money where their mouth is”.]

[Yes, I know. Another ill-advised foray into economics and politics. But at least you know what I think.]


* Timmy largely shares my views. But then again, I largely got them from him, though not about this story in particular.
* Wonga, in their own words

You couldn’t make this stuff up

Conservapedia, as any fule kno, is The Trustworthy Encyclopedia. On matters of politics or “difficult” science like dinosaurs, perhaps one might expect a slight divergence from reality. But on well understood matters like relativity? All will be well, Shirley. But someone posted their E=mc2 article as a screenshot to facebook, so I checked up, and lo! It is true: they really are utterly nutso. We all knew that anyway really, so this is just for fun (if you want details, it looks like rationalwiki is useful). Quoting:

E=mc² is Einstein’s famous formula which asserts that the energy (E) which makes up the matter in any body is equal to the square of the speed of light (c²) times the mass (m) of that body.[1] It is a statement that purports to relate all matter to energy. In fact, no theory has successfully unified the laws governing mass (i.e., gravity) with the laws governing light (i.e., electromagnetism), and numerous attempts to derive E=mc² in general from first principles have failed. Political pressure, however, has since made it impossible for anyone pursuing an academic career in science to even question the validity of this nonsensical equation. Simply put, E=mc² is liberal claptrap. Biblical Scientific Foreknowledge predicts that a unified theory of all the laws of physics is impossible, because light and matter were created at different times, in different ways, as described in the Book of Genesis.

“Supermr34” made a small attempt to tidy it up, but was swiftly reverted. “Walterinternet” tried just pasting in the wiki version (and implausibly claiming this was OK because he’d written it) but (a) that got reverted and (b) he was using wiki-templates that conservapedia doesn’t even have, so it was an utter mess. Eventually he gave up and just wrote “CONSERVAPEDIA IS GAY” which may well have been the best solution. As I write this, they’re back to the “Simply put, E=mc² is liberal claptrap” version.

The “scientific foreknowledge” page is great, too:

Quantum Mechanics: Observation of the Wave Function: The second chapter of the Gospel of John describes the conversion of water into wine by Jesus at a wedding reception. John 2:9 states: “When the host of the wedding feast tasted the water, it had been made into wine.” This passage implies that the drink was not wine until it had been tasted, or observed. Possibly, the drink was a superposition of the state of wine and the state of water until it was observed as wine.

Mocking Islam

Good grief of course people are mocking Islam, if Islam leads to this kind of stupidity. They are pretty well mocking themselves. Bit of a shame they need to kill people to do it.


(Incidentally, did you know that Depictions of Muhammad are only mostly [*] forbidden (in those versions of Islam which do forbid it) because the “key concern is that the use of images can encourage idolatry”. Which means images that take the piss are fine).

[*] Updated: apologies for the inaccurate paraphrase of my source.

Romans 8:31-39

At a funeral recently, this was the lesson, from which I excerpt:

31 What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?
32 He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?

(see here for some analysis and commentary, that looks fairly mainstream to me).

And I thought at the time, what doesn’t seem to be in the commentaries: very nice, but what about the other side: if we believe that God gave up his Son (ignoring for the moment the manifold theological problems with a divisible God) to torture and “death”, we can be pretty sure that he won’t shrink from offering the same to us. And observation confirms that :-).

And yes, it leads to this.

[2017: hmm, I wonder why I picked that link. Wiki might have been more permanent; or perhaps I should have gone straight to Dylan.]

Strange stuff from Pharyngula

I don’t, in general, read my fellow science blogs. Not because I hate them, you understand, but because they talk about other stuff. But I was lead to Inventing excuses for a Bible story, and getting them published in a science journal? and was immeadiately struck by (a) how strident it seemed, and (b) how backwards it all seemed. (a) I can excuse: I’m sure I seem the same fairly often, but hopefully not too often (b). Side note: I was “accused” recently of being tedious in my writing on wikipedia, at which I vigourously protested. But it became clear that she actually meant “tendentious” which isn’t great but is certainly much better (old joke: deaf old Oirish Catholic grandmother: and what do you do now, grandaughter? Grandaughter (embarrased, low voice, mumbles): I’m a prostitute. Grandmother (outraged): *what* did you say? Grandaughter: repeats, louder. Grandmother: Oh thank heavens, I thought you said you were a Protestant).

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes: someone has published a harmless paper with hydrodynamic modelling about whether the fabled crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites could be explained simply by wind forcing exposing some mudflats or reef. I read a bit of it (here it is, if you want to) but not enough to tell if it was any good. It reminded me of what I was taught in school, oooh, must be (thinks) 30 years ago. Much the same story, though with less detail. And we were taught by a proper C of E clergyman too, I tell you. In those days, “explaining away” the miracles of the bible was quite fashionable; perhaps it still is.

But PZ gets this completely backwards, altough bizarrely he also realises this, because if you can explain away all the miracles that is evidence against God, not in favour of it. so all the outrage and huffing and puffing is completely off target. Far better would have been a gentle mocking piece called something like “even the believers don’t believe” or somesuch.

I also find his “If a paper like this were plopped on my desk for review, I’d be calling the editor to ask if it was a joke. If it wasn’t, I’d laugh and reject it”. PZ knows nothing about hydrodynamics or ocean modelling. If this paper landed on his desk the only honourable thing for him to do would be to return it with a polite note saying that it was outside his field of competency to review.

Also, PZ has been rather careless with some of his sniping: It’s also troubling that this work actually got funded by NCAR and the Office of Naval Research. Why? I suspect that sympathetic Christians somewhere in the administration gave bad Christian research a pass… looks wrong (as pointed out in the comments [1]. The authors are funded; it doens’t look like this study specifically was. This looks like the kind of stuff one sees the septics pushing in the Global Warming arena. But PZ has no excuse: he is a scientist, and he knows how funding works.

Incidentally, there is a whole pile of speculation in PZ’s comments about where the idea for this came from, and why they bothered, etc etc. I think the answer is obvious: they were interested in the idea, and most importantly they had a model they could conveniently reconfigure to run this case, and computer time to run it. So they did.

Ha: and while I’m on disturbing reminders of GW: how about this from the comments:

I just talked to Drew via email, and he claims he performed this research ON HIS OWN TIME. I intend to write to NCAR and request and audit of his time there to verify that he used no government funded resources, and also to inquire why NCAR’s name was attached to this research in any way shape or form.

Does that kind of (threatened) harassment remind you of anything? I felt moved to comment over there:

PZ: you know (professionally) nothing about hydrodynamics. If this paper passed your desk for review, your only correct response would be to decline on the grounds of lack of competence. https://wmconnolley.wordpress.com/2010/09/strange_stuff_from_pharyngula.php Some of the comments on this thread are appalling. In particular I intend to write to NCAR and request and audit of his time there to verify that… looks very much like the kind of harassment that cliamte scientists have been subjected to by the septics. This is a harmless little paper. It may well not be great science, but if anything it deserves gentle mockery not vitriol.

[Note: visitors from P are welcome. However, make sure you’re aware of the comment policy which may not be as free-n-easy as you’re used to. In particular, insulting other commenters, or simply repeating yourself, aren’t welcome. I’ve already deleted some comments -W]

[Update: from Chris, over in the comments there, an important point: It’s well worth, in my opinion, standing firmly for the principle of academic freedom. I wish I’d said that too.]

[Update: another aspect I forgot and shouldn’t have (from Chris C in the comments): There’s a larger issue here: the importance of a playful attitude in the pursuit of knowledge. Yes! Lets not take this stuff too seriously. We have to work, but it doesn’t all have to be grind. We can have fun too, and should.]

[Thanks to the indefatiguable Hank for digging out Sci-Fi atmospheres by Ray Pierrehumbert. I haven’t seen that before. Meanwhile, BCL has found some more govt-sponsored trash that PZ will doubtless be attacking :-)]

Nae Popery

Bloody Pope. In a major speech reported all over the UK and probably around the world, the Pope whinged about religion being silenced [1]. Quite why he can’t see the obvious problem in that is a mystery. Maybe self-awareness isn’t his strong point. For extra fun, Ian Paisley denounces the Pope is worth a watch (really you want “The old Orange flute” in the Clancy / Makem version, but I can’t find that). I must be getting old if I think that Ian Paisley makes sense.

Actually, despite the badge, I’ve no objection to him coming here, or even preaching. Nowt wrong with either. I just wish he wouldn’t talk twaddle, and that he would know his and his religions place in the world, which is a minor one.

Though El Papa does know the real answer, because he said: There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. Yes, indeed there are such people who would like the second half (properly interpreted), like me, and nominally like the US constitution. So you’re welcome to believe but you’re not welcome to have an official place in our democracy.

The Beeb spins his speech as His essential message was that democracy relies on the use of reason… reason needed to be judged against the unchanging teaching offered by religion – based as it was on “natural law”, the fundamental nature of people. This is std.trash. For one thing, the idea that religious teaching is unchanging is obvious twaddle. Just try stoning someone to death in the UK these days and see if they’ll let you, or burning a witch. They’re even trying to stop their priests fiddling with kiddies, in a clear breach of long-hallowed tradition (or maybe not. The Torygraph says he said that “politicians must not interfere with the running of Roman Catholic institutions” so perhaps they do want to keep it up). But for another, the idea that relgion will help you reason better, or is the only source of morality, is just silly. No-one believes that stuff any more.

Meanwhile, *after* reading the speech

Well, I did have fun writing that. But I really should have known better than to trust the meeja – I only did so cos I couldn’t find the full text easily. But my uneasy consience lead me to search and here it is – seek, and ye shall find, as someone once said. So:

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation.

This is interesting, because it uses a word I don’t know, viz “prescinding”. Apparently it means To separate or divide in thought; consider individually [3]. Soooooo… Right Action can be discerned *without* revelation – I presume that means, without the Bible. Supporting that, he continues:

According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers… but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.

So that is weird: it looks, in fact, like a nearly complete retreat from the moral sphere, rather in the way the Churches have retreated from the scientific one. So religion *isn’t* to be the basis for morality at all. Religion, in some rather ill-defined way, is to “shed light upon the application of reason”, whatever that means. Ah, but then later on it all falls apart again – Reason is what gave us slavery, and we need religion to correct Reason – so the atheists are doomed after all. Well, I call that rather confused.

[Updates: I’m please to say that this blog is now the #1 google hit for “nae popery” even without quotes. More seriously, from the comments: the Pope isn’t a native-speaker, so maybe he didn’t mean “prescinds”? I don’t think that is plausible: (1) people will have carefully checked over every word of the speech (2) especially for a non-native speaker “prescinds” isn’t a word you use without being sure what it means. OTOH it could have been chosen carefully to be deliberately obscure to most listeners.]