Sunday, 27 February 2011

Economic Equations

Ever since the ITiCSE conference in Turkey in late June 2010, I have been thinking of how flawed the economic thinking is.

At the ITiCSE conference, one to the speakers had talked of Turkey aiming to export more than it imported. The problem with that objective is that it isn't possible for all nations. If there are more exports than imports then somewhere there are exports that are not being consumed. Gifted exports are still imported somewhere. It is simply that the receiver doesn't attempt to match the value of the gift with their own exports so there is no imbalance added to the system.

If there is a country importing more than it exports, it has to be receiving gifts or borrowing to cover the difference between its imports and its exports. Fundamentally, the total physical exports must be equal to the total physical imports around the world.

sum of exports = sum of imports

If a nation is primarily on importer then it is either generating new credit into the system or accruing debt. If it generates credit into the system then it doesn't care about the imbalance because there is really no cost to itself. If it incurs a debt then that probably comes with an interest requirement attached meaning that in order to pay back the loan, it has to export more than it imports. I would contend since that is the goal of all nations and economic units then somewhere the system is going to breakdown and debts are not going to be repaid.

My argument here is that at best, we might actually get a balance between exports and imports for all nations or economic units.

However, there is another line of thought that really caused me to try and write this entry. It relates to things that are purchased / imported in order to be destroyed. An army is a consuming economic unit. Weapons for war are assumed to be produced simply to be destroyed. Nobody expects an army to earn through exports / sales, the cost of its operations. These are the black holes of an economy. Governments attempt in balancing the books to pay for these black holes through taxation but this upsets the export to import balance or does it? The government uses the tax to buy goods and services or to support others who are consumers of goods and services. You could argue it is a wealth distribution mechanism. The question is whether it works.

Maybe some of my thinking is too simplistic but what I see is pressure to have a system that is out of balance and a balancing mechanism in the form of interest accruing debt that simply puts the system further out of balance. The economic black holes consume without adding balance to the economy and consequently need gifts in order for the system to remain balanced. If these economic black holes cannot borrow against future profit because there will never be a future profit. All they do is increase the size of the future gift required to keep them in operation.

I see a fundamental problem with all of these attempts to balance economics because they make assumptions that profit (exports are greater than imports or income is greater that expenditure) is possible. In the end, they have to be equal and for that to happen in a system that is out of balance requires gifts to consumption units (the economic black holes).

Some will argue that I have it wrong because growth is what will enable a country to repay loans and interest. Growth doesn't generate funds to cover interest payments. There has to be growth in all nations in order to maintain the balance between imports and exports. It is not possible to have more exports than imports. If more is produced than can be consumed then it is simply wasted and adds further cost to an out of balance system.

References

Douglas, C. H. (1974). Economic democracy. Epsom, Surrey: Bloomfield Publishers.

Disaster Recovery

Christchurch, New Zealand, is a place that we are very familiar with. I did my BSc and MSc studies at the University of Canterbury and my second industry job with Canterbury Savings Bank in the centre of the city. When we look at the photos of the current damage cause by the earthquake, we see just how much of the character of the central city has been destroyed. We have heard from Marilyn's brother, and three families that we know in Christchurch. All are safe although they have various damage to their properties. One couple has left Christchurch to live with family until things settle down.

However, although our thoughts are with the people and the need to re-establish their lives, it is the ongoing cost burden that is my concern. I read that the current estimate is $10 billion to restore the city. It is difficult to see how donations will cover that type of cost. How will the difference be made up? I suspect by loans. What are the long term implications of such a strategy?

Countries, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, struggle to recover from floods and natural disasters. Donations help overcome some of the suffering but are never enough to bring recovery to all the people. The countries go further into debt but never producing a better environment. Our economic system is designed to enslave and natural disasters just ensure that the process of enslaving goes further.

I fear that New Zealand's disaster will plunge New Zealand backwards at a time when it seemed to be weathering the economic storm. The government has pledged to spend what is necessary for search and rescue but that is only the start of the costs. Will they be as willing to create funding to rebuild the city's infrastructure and to help people recover. Sure insurance may cover some of the recovery costs but what that guarantees is that insurance costs will rise.

Our economic focus is that someone has to pay even if resources are available. It also favours those who can afford to pay. As a result resources can be taken from areas of need and used in other areas where the need is not so great.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Leaning on

“In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean upon him that smote them, but will lean upon the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth” (Isaiah 10:20).This passage opened one of our morning readings but it challenges my thinking and the way that we live. We have become dependant on the economic structures of this world, leaning heavily on them and allowing them to dictate our decision making. We fear what will happen without them to dictate our decision making. We fear what will happen without an income source and as a consequence fail to really focus on those things that God is calling us to.

I have reflected on loan aid being given to countries suffering from natural disasters and debates on equality. I have wanted to talk of how loans further cripple and enslave countries and how equality economically is really only the starting point. But we don't have models or the evidence. How is my research in this area progressing? I still haven't made any progress. I haven't followed the threads that I have been given. Why? I have other priorities and a fear how focusing on these things might drive me further away from an ability to earn an income.

I have received calls for contract work that would provide a better income although not a more stable income. I didn't consider them but I could easily have done so. But what would this have done to my focus on the need for economic change. Already, I am struggling to do or live according to my belief system. A giving economy is still just a dream. It isn't our way of living.

We lean on financial support mechanisms and not on God. We don't follow where he leads us but live in fear of economic draught. The challenge of this opening verse is to refocus on God's call and to lean on Him for the resources for daily living.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Conception and Perception

This blog has its origins in being challenged by one of my ex-PhD supervisors on the way that I was using the terms 'perception' and 'conception'. What do these terms mean and how do they apply to learning. A third term is 'mental models'. What do we mean by 'mental models' and is there any relationship between 'conception', 'perception', and 'mental models'. I don't solve all the problems and some of my thoughts still ramble a bit but I hope that the key idea that learning is about conceptual change and that the perception of a task influences the learner's ability to achieve the task.

Definitions

From the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

  • conception: "an idea of what something or someone like, or a basic understanding of a situation or a principle"
  • concept: "principle or idea"
  • perception: "a belief or opinion, often held by many people and based on how things seem"

From the Compact Oxford Dictionary:

  • conception: "the devising of a plan or idea"
  • perception: "a way of understanding or interpreting something"

    • "the way in which something is regraded, understood, on interpreted"
    • "intuitive understanding and insight"
  • concept: (Philosophy) "An idea or mental image which corresponds to some distant entity or class of entities, or to its essential features, or determines the application of a term (especially a predicate), and thus plays a part in the use of reason or language"
  • conceptual: "relating to or based on mental concepts"

From the Free Dictionary:

  • conception: "The ability to form or understand mental concepts or abstractions"

    • "Something conceived in the mind; a concept, plan, design, idea, or thought"
  • perception: "The effect or product of perceiving"

    • "Insight, intuition, or knowledge gained by perceiving"

Which comes first perception or conception?

Tad Waddington (2008) claims that it has been "shown that people often don't see a thing unless they have some idea of what they are looking for." He says "People do not perceive primarily with their senses, but with their minds." The implication is that "conception leads perception."

Taking this perspective, I seem to be correct in arguing that the way a learner perceives a task is influenced by their conception of the concepts represented in the task. Consequently focusing on fostering an appropriate conceptual understanding of the concepts that form the task would appear to help learning.

Goldstone and Barsalou (1998) argue for similarity in conceptual and perceptual processing. They state that "many concepts are partially organised around perceptual similarities" (p 232). They argue "that perceptual processes guide the construction of abstract concepts" (p 232).

They go on to state: "First, perception provides a wealth of information to guide conceptualization. Second, perceptual processes themselves can change as a result of concept development and use" (p 232).

The core argument of Goldstone and Barsalou is that perception influences the formation of conceptions, and that conceptions influence perceptions. Perceptions are described as "implicit information" (p 237) and that conceptions are based on the formation of abstractions (pp 237, 243). In this sense concepts are seen as abstract thoughts.

Learning and concepts

Ramsden (2003) says that "learning is best conceptualised as a change in the way in which people understand the world around them, rather than as a qualitative accretion of facts and procedures" (p 79). He argues that the student's approaches to learning "are intimately connected to students' perceptions of the context of learning" (p 81). These include perceptions "of assessment requirements, of workload, of the effectiveness of teaching and commitment of teachers, and of the amount of control students might exert over their own learning" (p 81). He argues that student perceptions "are the product of an interaction between these environments and their previous experiences, including their usual ways of thinking about academic learning" (p 81).

Looking at the definitions, I would argue that the learner's conceptions of the topic, words used to describe the task, comprise their "usual ways of thinking." The conception is "a basic understanding of a situation or a principle" (Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary). The learner's conceptions are part of what they bring to the learning situation. It influences the way that they perceive the task, the perception that they form of the task.

On this basis, I argue that if we can influence the student's conceptions of key subject matter concepts then we will influence their perception of the task. In the case of my thesis, I am arguing that the learner's conception of a program (the way they understand or think about its nature) influences the learner's perception of the task "learning to program." What we are endeavouring to do is influence the way that the learner understands the world around them.

Likewise Bowden and Marton (2003) have argued that "the most important form of learning" involves a change in the way that the learner sees something in the world (that is conceptual change). Why is this important? Conceptual change influences the way a person perceives things and consequentially their response to those things.

My reflection is that I seek to change conceptual understanding that is the way concepts are understood possibly through adding new concepts. I do this on order that they might perceive a situation differently and as a consequence have a different perceptual understanding (perception). Conception in this context is the way the concept is understood.

Perception is the way that they regard or understand a situation or task. What I am trying to do is use perception in relationship to new encounters or situations and conceptions for existing experiences and understandings.

I would contend that in order to foster conceptual change, we need to present variations that will challenge the learner's current conceptual thinking I would contend that I am trying to influence the way a learner perceives the concepts. In the case of programming, I am targeting the nature of a program but I will also target conceptual understanding of the software development process.

Mental Models

Minsky (1986) describes a mental model in terms of "a model to be anything that helps a person answer questions" (p 303). This is something that exists inside the brain or more generally a model that help us explain or understand the world around us. Minsky uses the terminology "model of the world" and talks of "our models of our models of the world" (p 304). Minsky's terminology makes it clear that he sees individuals as having different mental models.

Technically the categories from a phenomenographic study are not any individual's mental model but they do include characteristics of features of how people express their understanding of the world or at least the phenomenon being studied. I, therefore, don't have a problem with saying that the outcome of a phenomenographic study may challenge models of the phenomenon.

Reference

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer.

Bowden, J. A., & Marton, F. (2003). University of learning. London: Routledge Falmer.

Minsky, M. L. (1986). The society of mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Waddington, T. (2008, 23 November). Conception Leads Perception: On enhancing your powers or perception. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/smarts/200811/conception-leads-perception

Goldstone, R. L., & Barsalou, L. W. (1998). Reuniting perception and conception. Cognition, 65(2-3), 231-262.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Appeals and Judgements

When natural disasters occur around the world, there are appeals for money to help with recovery. In our economic system, the level of aid provided is based on given resources. It fails to address the issues that have some influence on the cause of the disasters. Under our economic system, the constraint is always the money resources and not whether there is the potential to actually deal with the issues Supposedly, the objective is to match resources with need but is that what really happens?

Are disasters linked with our actions? There seems to be some evidence that deforestation increases the possibility of flooding and global warming is influencing weather patterns. Yet we reluctantly take action to redress the problems that we have caused. The excuse is the cost or impact on our lifestyle. Our capitalistic thinking and life style have priority and we are reluctant to use measures other than those focused on growth and prosperity for measuring and rewarding success.

We are currently living in an economic slowdown supposedly caused by banks taking excessive risks with investments. The previous government is accused of increasing the deficit rather than being a prudent and trying to maintain a balance in the government accounts. The result is that the current government is endeavouring to cut expenditure further compounding the difficulties for many people, some through job loses. Where is our society heading? I believe that we will reap what we sow. Those who can read the signs of the times will see what is likely to happen.

My thoughts turn to prophesies of judgement as recorded in Isaiah 9:8-21. The prophet describes the demise of the northern kingdom and then says the same will happen to Judah unless she changes her ways. I don't see the regions that are suffering natural disasters as being judged but I do see a warning for the western nations. We export a prosperity society and don't see how we are stripping the world of its natural resources. We seem to think that we can go on extending life and consuming resources without seeing the consequences to our own society. Inequality keeps increasing and we destroy our environment because we are never satisfied and our financial system depends on growth.

My thought is that the west's time to be brought low will happen but when that does she will not receive the aid that she currently gives reluctantly. There will be no wealthy nations to bail her out. The west will reap the results of the commitment to the growth and capitalistic economics. Rescissions are expected in a system that depends on growth and yet endeavours to maintain a balance in the government books.

Last year, we watched an Australian programme on the penguins of Phillip Island. In that programme, they watched baby penguins die arguing that they could not intervene in nature. This is despite man's influence on nature that has possibly removed the normal food sources for the penguins. We fail to act where we are the cause of poverty and destruction. We assume the race to prosperity that takes people out of their culture is a good thing. The result is people moving from tribal communities to slums in large cities.

When we try to help other nations in development activities, do we destroy the current survival patterns built on established cultural practices and draw them into our resource intensive western practices? Where is the pressure the other way to restore balance and seek ways to live that are in harmony with nature? Maybe we should be talking about sustainability or equality rather than development.

I am looking for new models and different goals for the way that we operate our society but like many others I am indoctrinated by the principles of capitalistic thought thought that drive our daily interactions.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

How long?

Sawyer (1984) sees Isaiah's cry of “How long, O Lord” (Isaiah 6:9-13) as sign of Isaiah's "love for his city" and as a pleading for his people. He links this with similar cries from other prophets and passages from the Psalms where there is the question “Wilt thou forget me for ever?” (Psalm 13:1-2, p 73).

I see such cries differently. “How long will the people not go on learning or seeing the consequences of the path they are walking?” In some respects, my cry also carries a concern for the people but I am not crying for God to stop a judgement. My cry is for a removal of their blindness, a healing of their sight.

But I also need to recognise that I don't see the consequences of sin as “the stern justice” of God or as being “contained within the nature of God” (p 74). God seeks to redeem and restore but in order for us to be redeemed, we need to see the failure of our ways and turn to repentance. We can not repent without seeing the consequences of the path that we have chosen.

The society in the time of Isaiah had chosen a path to destruction and like now, the people were blind and deaf to the calls for change (Isaiah 6:9-10). Did God close their eyes and ears or in the arrogance or confidence of the people have they marched on ignoring the warnings from God.

I put this into today's context, as the western economies again struggle to recover and yet go on believing in the economic practices that nearly crippled them. Not only do they go on believing in them, they go on promoting them and pushing them on others. Why are these people so blind that they can not see. God's judgement isn't needed. The path is already clear. The system will fail again but blindly on the people march to the destruction that lies ahead.

Yes, the prophet cries for the people not because he wants God to stop judgement but simply so the people who have shut their eyes and ears will see and hear, that they might repent and seek redemption and restoration that God has on offer.

Reference:

Swayer, J. F. A. (1984). Isaiah (Vol. 1). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

We're in this together: Yeah Right!

In promoting his “Big Society” vision, the Prime Minster of the UK, David Cameron, says we are in this together. His cry is that we need to be prepared to accept the hardship required as the government works to balance the accounts and get through the current economic crisis. I am sorry Mr Cameron but so far all the signs are that “We are not in this together.”

It can hardly be considered “in it together” when the head of the organisation I work for accepts an 11% pay rise while trying to encourage the rank and file worker to accept a 0.4% rise. When the inflation rate is less than his increase but higher than the rank and files increase, how can this be “in it together.” Nor are we in this together when bankers continue to receive huge bonuses while deposit holders are forced to accept a pittance in interest. Who really gains the benefit from these austerity measures? Strangely it is those who have the resources to get through hard times who seem to be gaining the benefit while everyone else suffers.

An excuse that I heard for continuing banker's bonuses was that if they didn't get their bonus they would move on. Is this the excuse for giving the head an 11% pay rise? My response to those excuses is that if these people were really in this with the rank and file, that would accept that they need to accept the same restrictions as the rest of us. If the only reason they are staying is the bonus or the out of proportion pay rise then are they really committed to helping put these things right? Those who I know who commit to sorting out the problems are prepared to accept the same restrictions as everyone else. They don't claim benefits 27.5 times that of the others in the organisation.

Do I feel like cooperating to resolve the problems? Certainly not with those who seem to be taking the benefits while others suffer. I have to question whether their assumptions about the problem and how to solve them are valid. It would seem that they are more interested in ensuring their own status than addressing the underlying problems. Are these people really interested in the people who struggle in society? I don't think so.

In the case of this economic crisis, I have to question why the people end up feeling the crunch as the result of rescued banks rather than the bankers. If the government wanted to rescue the situation, they should have supported the people who were likely to lose their investments because of the bank failures and not propped up the banks and then claimed that they needed to penalise the people. If they wanted to inject money into the banks, it should have been done without incurring a debt to the government accounts or the public. That is they should have injected new credit into the system and in such a way that it didn't go into the hands of the bankers.

I know this breaks all the perceived rules of the system but what is happening as governments that have now incurred additional debt now struggle to rebalance the system. Who created those rules? Are those rules valid? Are their alternative rules or ways of operating the system that puts priority on wholeness and and the needs of the cosmos? The current system puts the emphasis on balancing of some figures in books and claims that some needs can not be meet because there are no funds. The consequence is that people and nature all suffer. We justify spending on war and destruction but can't justify investment in peace and wholeness. I ask what would happen if we changed our measures and threw out the monetary focus?

For the first time in my working life, I would consider joining a strike if one was proposed by the union even though I am not part of the union. In the current situation, I simply don't see justice being done. The problem for me is that I still may not agree with the unions reason for striking.

Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I would contend that we can't solve the current economic problems with the same thinking or system practices that caused the problems. We need to be using alternative ways of thinking and exploring ideas that seem impossible. Einstein may give us another clue when he says “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”