Sheriffs Elect!

On 24 June at Common Hall Chris Hayward CC and I were delighted to be elected Sheriffs to take effect at our installation on 27 September. Here we are pictured outside Cutlers’ Hall with our wives Alex and Elisabeth as we toured nine livery companies in ninety minutes to thank the nearly 1,400 people who turned up to vote!

The City of London Corporation Press Release provides more detail.

My electoral address was as follows:

Fellow Liverymen,

The Almighty has many ways of guiding us.  As I stand before this august traditional assembly in a violet gown, I realise that “Common Hall is God’s way of teaching Americans history.”

Though I have the support of the Court of Aldermen, I’m asking you directly for your vote today for the office of Sheriff of this great City.  

I came to this City as a scientist to computerise finance in the early 1980s.  I have watched the City grow and change for nearly four decades.  In six years as Alderman I’ve served on influential committees, worked on our strategic plan, championed pedestrian space, and pushed for air quality.  I’ve served charities, such as Christ’s Hospital, Morden College, Gresham College, Goodenough College, City & Guilds, and belong to four liveries.  I’ve built a renowned City business.  I like to think I know the City reasonably well, yet God always seems to have so much more to teach.

Our country and our city face great challenges.  Our globe is simultaneously more inter-connected and more fractured.  We’ve rarely had greater opportunities for trade and growth since the Great War, or greater risks.

As part of the Central Criminal Courts and Civic teams, a Sheriff is about dressing.  No, not dressing up; more like dressing a salad.  In this challenging world, the Civic team mixes various oils and waters to make richer connections for all.  It is not ‘business as usual’.  My letter to you speaks of my desire to champion the three emulsifying agents of Commerce, Community, and Charity.

  • commerce – creating prosperity for all.  The livery delivers trade connections, hosts delegations, and guides the Civic team, for example the Financial Services Group of Livery Companies;
  • community – enriching our environments.  Our Pan-Livery approach must achieve more inclusivity, more diversity, connecting nationally as the Brigantes are doing, and connecting internationally such as the Air Pilots have done.
  • charity – sharing success.  We need to work together laying down enduring commercial, cultural, educational, and caring ways to support all who need it in a fair, inclusive, healthy, and skilled City.

My wife Elisabeth and I have an international perspective, complete with accents.  We would count it a privilege to use our experience passionately promoting the UK in all aspects, professional, business, legal, technical, and financial.  To sell not just a global centre, but THE global city, and THE global UK, open, tolerant, and connected.

Many national constitutions guarantee freedom of speech, but only a few guarantee freedom after the speech – and now you’re free of mine. 

May I thank so many of you for your encouragement to stand.  Fellow Liverymen, I humbly ask you to join with the Court of Aldermen and raise your white card for my election to the great and ancient office of Sheriff of the City of London. 

Thank you.  Fellow Liverymen.

… while my acceptance speech went as follows:

My Lord Mayor, My Fellow Liverymen,

It is with great anticipation, and an even deeper sense of history, that I wholeheartedly accept the office of Sheriff of the City of London.  I intend to discharge this office with honour to the betterment of this fantastic City of ours.  I look forward to working with the Recorder, Common Serjeant, Judges, and team at the Central Criminal Courts at Old Bailey.  I also look forward to working with the Lord Mayor and the Civic team.

May I take this moment to thank so many of you all for your encouragement, my fellow liverymen, my fellow Aldermen, my colleagues at the Corporation of London, my predecessor at Broad Street Ward, David Lewis, my election agent Ruby Sayed, and my wife Elisabeth.

At his inauguration Thomas Jefferson promised – “Commerce and honest friendship with all.”  I do too.

Thank you.  My Fellow Liverymen, My Lord Mayor.

The Mainelli Coat of Arms

Did you ever hanker after a coat of arms? Well, in preparation for the role of Sheriff One I commissioned arrived today from the College of Arms:

Mainelli – Coat of Arms Description

The Escutcheon’s two five-lobed cinquefoils signify ‘main’, ‘hand’, and the Italian family name’s translation as ‘nimble-fingered’. Cinquefoils are ‘celtic’ or ‘pretzel’ knots, indicating Michael’s Irish and German ancestors, and German wife, Elisabeth. The resulting ‘star’ reflects the USA and Gresham College. Five tao symbols inside the cinquefoils symbolize philosophy and the yin and yang of computation with plus and nought.

At the centre is an analemma for the ‘equation of time’ used on sundials to determine the position of the sun, representing Michael’s creation of early  global computer cartography. Rendered as a mobius strip, the analemma symbolises the cyclic infinity of Michael’s Long Finance movement.  Three arrows represent Michael’s work in science & defence, stochastics & statistics, and accountancy & finance; his three children; and three lifelong themes of ‘tempus fugit’ (time flies, ‘like an arrow’), ‘sumus unus’ (we are one), and ‘carpe diem’ (seize the day).

The Crest features a puffin on Irish bagpipes sporting a compass rose, standing on a ‘chancing the impossible’ loaded die while balancing a World Traders’ money bag. The compass rose doubles as a ship’s wheel and his wife’s family trade of wheelwright. As well as loving sailing and wood-carving, the family loves air, land, and sea travel, particularly in northern climes; the puffin does all three.

The Badge comprises a feather for writing, the analemma and mobius strip for eternity and time, and the statistical sigma for variance.

Red, black, and white colours reflect numerous institutions in his life such as Harvard, the London School of Economics & Political Science, Z/Yen, the City of London, and Thames barges, as well as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where his father and grandfather studied engineering. The green on the Irish pipes is self-explanatory, and blue/purple his favourite colour.

The motto is Ordo ex χάος, ‘order from chaos’, stressing his interest in the scientific method, eliciting knowledge from uncertainty, and discerning beauty in chaotic structures, while subversively suggesting emergent Latin order from Greek creativity.

Pompous?  Nous?

Gresham’s Law – The Full Mounte-Bank

Gresham’s Law: The Life and World of Queen Elizabeth I’s Banker by Dr John Guy

With our promotion of Dr Guy’s excellent biography, we get flack from time to time for saying that Gresham’s Law is best expressed as “good money drives out bad”. Some folk reference Brittanica for example:

Gresham’s law, observation in economics that “bad money drives out good.” More exactly, if coins containing metal of different value have the same value as legal tender, the coins composed of the cheaper metal will be used for payment, while those made of more expensive metal will be hoarded or exported and thus tend to disappear from circulation. Sir Thomas Gresham, financial agent of Queen Elizabeth I, was not the first to recognize this monetary principle, but his elucidation of it in 1558 prompted the economist H.D. Macleod to suggest the term Gresham’s law in the 19th century.

Some points on Gresham’s law are: Gresham’s Law (a) goes back to Aristophanes, (b) is incorrectly expressed by most people, and (c) is falsely attributed to Sir Thomas.

Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579), Retrato por Anthonis Mor, c. 1554

The best single piece on this, and quite a good read it is, is by the 1999 Nobel laureate, Professor Robert Mundell, “Uses and Abuses of Gresham’s Law in the History of Money”, Columbia University, August 1998 – http://www.columbia.edu/~ram15/grash.html.

“Cheap money drives out dear, if they exchange for the same price”, rather than the misleading and overly terse, “bad money drives out good”.  More generally, “a cheap measure drives out a valuable measure, if they exchange for the same price”.  His section, “Good Money Drives Out Bad”, states clearly:

The usual expression of the law, “bad money drives out good” is a mistake. Schumpeter refers to this common definition as “not quite correct.”(20) But as the statement stands, it is not just “not quite correct;” it is quite false. The opposite is true!

Standing by itself, the general statement, “good money drives out bad,” is the more correct empirical proposition. Historically, it has been good, strong currencies that have driven out bad, weak currencies. Over the span of several millennia, strong currencies have dominated and driven out weak in international competition. The Persian daric, the Greek tetradrachma, the Macedonian stater, and the Roman denarius did not become dominant currencies of the ancient world because they were “bad” or “weak.” The florins, ducats and sequins of the Italian city-states did not become the “dollars of the Middle Ages” because they were bad coins; they were among the best coins ever made. The pound sterling in the 19th century and the dollar in the 20th century did not become the dominant currencies of their time because they were weak. Consistency, stability and high quality have been the attributes of great currencies that have won the competition for use as international money.

The same proposition holds with respect to the use of materials for international money. The precious metals won out over other substances not because they were “cheap” or “bad” but because they were more efficient than other instruments in fulfilling the required functions of money. Among the precious metals, gold drove out others not because gold was bad but because it was more efficient from the standpoint of effecting transactions at the least cost. The dollar became the dominant international money in a world of paper currencies not because it was “bad” but because, among the alternatives, it best satisfied the characteristics of an international money.

If Gresham’s Law could be rendered coherently as “bad money drives out good” it would have no claim to our attention as a serious proposition of economics. On the contrary, it is a completely false generalization, and an invalid rendering of Gresham’s Law.

George Selgin also has a good explanation – https://web.archive.org/web/20130317073119/http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/selgin.gresham.law – pointing out how the expression gets pulled into the bimetallism debates of the 19th century, which gives some context for the use by Macleod below.

You might wish to skim the last major opus on Gresham before Dr Guy’s, “The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Gresham” (1839) – not exactly the world’s best written nor best researched history – by John William Burgon.  I bought a copy of the two volume set when I became a Gresham professor, but it is nonetheless free online – http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Life_and_Times_of_Sir_Thomas_Gresham.html?id=0uoJAAAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y.  It makes an interesting Kindle read.  There is no mention of “bad money” or “good money” or “Gresham’s Law”.  Perhaps the closest Gresham himself comes to expressing his eponymous law is on page 484 in a letter to Queen Elizabeth – https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=0uoJAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PA484

Ytt may pleasse your majesty to understande, thatt the firste occasion off the fall of the exchainge didgrowe by the Kinges majes ty, your latte ffather, in abasinge his quoyne ffrome vi ounces fine too iii ounces fine. Wheruppon the exchainge fell ffrome xxvi*. viiirf. to xiii*. ivrf. which was the occasion thatt all your ffine goold was convayd ought of this your realme.

Henry Dunning Macleod (1821-1902) touches on Gresham in 1857:

At last, Sir Thomas Gresham explained to Queen Elizabeth that allowing base and degraded coin to circulate along with good coin caused it to disappear; that bad coin and good coin cannot circulate together; but that the bad coin invariably and necessarily drives out good coin from circulation, and alone remains current.

H. D. McLeod, The History of Economics (London, 1896), pp. 38–9, quoting his 1857 essay on the topic.

This is close to Mundell.  Again, in The History of Political Economy (London, 1858), available online here – https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=floBAAAAQAAJ&hl=en_GB&pg=GBS.PA475 – he goes further – https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=yqNCAAAAcAAJ&hl=en_GB&pg=GBS.PA477

Macleod starts the statement problem when he tries in 1860 to express things more completely in his “The Theory and Practice of Banking”, Volume 1, 1860, pages 218-219, where he appears to almost contradict his own expression in the same section, available online here – https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=jLRLAAAAYAAJ&hl=en_GB&pg=GBS.PA219 – (the three emboldenings are mine):

These considerations lead us to a fundamental and universal law in Political Economy, which has been found to be true in all countries and ages — That bad money drives out good money from circulation; or, as it is expressed in an anonymous pamphlet, A reply to the Defence of the Bank, setting forth the unreasonableness of their slow payments. London, 1696.  When two sorts of coin are current in the same nation of like value by denomination, but not intrinsically, that which has the least value will be current, and the other as much as possible will be hoarded,” or exported, we may add. The fact of the disappearance of good coin in the presence of bad, was noticed by Aristophanes ; and was long the puzzle of financiers and statesmen, who continued to issue good coin from the Mint, and were greatly perplexed by its immediate disappearance, till Sir Thomas Gresham explained the cause, whence we have called it Gresham’s Law of the Currency.

This law is of such fundamental importance in Political Economy, viz., That good and bad coin cannot circulate together, but the bad coin will drive out the good, that it may be interesting to quote the passage which contains the earliest notice, that we are aware of, of the phenomenon.” from circulation. Aristophanes, Frogs, 765, says: — “The State has very often appeared to us to be placed in the same position towards the good and noble citizens as it is with regard to the old currency and the new gold ; for we make no use at all, either at home or abroad, of those which are not adulterated, but the most beautiful of all money, as it would seem, which are alone well coined and ring properly, but of this base copper, struck only yesterday, and recently of a most villainous stamp. And such of the citizens as we know to be well-born and prudent and honorable gentlemen, and educated in the palaestra, and chorus, and liberal knowledge, we insult. But the impudent and foreigners, and the base born, and the rascals, and the sons of rascals, and those most recently come, we employ.” This law, thus first noticed by Aristophanes, has been found to be true in every age and country. It is also from the same principle that a paper currency is invariably found to expel a metallic currency of the same denomination from circulation. And to show the generality of the principle, it was found in America that when a depreciated paper currency had driven coin out of circulation, and a still more depreciated paper currency was issued, the more depreciated drove out the less appreciated from circulation.

The unattributed pamphlet Macleod mentions, “A Reply to the Defence of the Bank: setting forth the unreasonableness of their slow payments. … In a letter to his friend in the countrey. By a true Lover of his Countrey, etc.”, page 20, actually expresses the Law correctly as one notes above, before Macleod mashes it.  It is also available online here (also search for ‘clipt’) – https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=CPNmAAAAcAAJ&rdid=book-CPNmAAAAcAAJ&rdot=1

The pamphlet does not mention Gresham.  Gresham would never have said baldly, “bad money drives out good”.  Macleod provides a number of explanations in close proximity, any of which could be his “Gresham’s Law” –  “bad money drives out good”, “when two sorts of coin are current in the same nation of like value by denomination, but not intrinsically, that which has the least value will be current, and the other as much as possible will be hoarded”, “disappearance of good coin in the presence of bad”, “good and bad coin cannot circulate together, but the bad coin will drive out the good”.  The last, rather ambiguous one, seems to be the explanation driving the subsequent century and a half of schoolyard trivia.  If only Macleod had said “good and bad coin cannot be forced to circulate together, but the bad coin will drive out the good”, we would have had a useful statement for everyday use.

I close this bit on Macleod with Mundell – “Schumpeter’s comment points up a paradox: the law is trivially easy to understand, but then why does everybody get it wrong?”

And two 2019 events:

By way of addenda, I reference Mundell in this lecture that touches on Gresham’s Measurement Corollary

Gresham College – “The Perverse & The Reverse: How Bad Measures Skew Markets” – London, England (17 October 2005) – easy to read transcript here – https://www.zyen.com/media/documents/Perverse_aUgyxUR.pdf6 which made its way into our book, “The Price of Fish” https://www.amazon.co.uk/Price-Fish-Approach-Economics-Decisions-ebook/dp/B01HPVH806?tag=zyenlimite-21 with the relevant section available online here – https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=NQ19DAAAQBAJ&dq=mainelli+%22gresham%27s+law%22&q=gresham%27s+law#v=snippet&q=gresham’s%20law&f=false

In advance of the coming biography, I wrote a piece for this blog, http://www.mainelli.org/?p=551, and a piece for the London Topographical Society, http://www.londontopsoc.org/newsletters/Newsletter%2079, reiterating the more accurate expression, and recently posted about the newly-minted commemorative coins – http://www.mainelli.org/?p=1287 – which poke fun at the reversibility by having one phrase on the obverse and the other on the reverse.

Declaring My Candidature for Sheriff of the City of London 2019/2020 –

17 March 2019

Election of Sheriffs for the City of London – Monday, 24th June 2019

Candidature of Alderman Professor Michael Mainelli FCCA Chartered FCSI(Hon) FBCS

To the Liverymen of the City of London

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Common Hall

With a sense of honour and enthusiasm, I offer myself to the Livery for election at Common Hall to be held at Guildhall on Monday, 24th June, at 12 noon.  My colleagues on the Court of Aldermen support my nomination, as they did last year, as their candidate for the ancient office of Sheriff of the City of London for 2019/20.  If a poll is demanded, I would like to ask for your support by voting in my favour at the ballot on Monday, 8th July 2019, also at Guildhall.

Who?

I was born in the USA, the eldest in a family of six children.  As my father was an engineer in the then-peripatetic aerospace industry, I attended some 18 educational establishments in four countries culminating with a ‘liberal arts’ BA from Harvard University, fourth-year studies in mathematics, engineering, and computer science at Trinity College Dublin, and a PhD from the London School of Economics where I was also a Visiting Professor.  During my tertiary education I undertook scientific research, principally in aerospace and the then new field of geographic information systems.  Working out of Switzerland from 1979-1984, my biggest technical claim to fame might be the first commercial digital maps of the world in MundoCart and Geodat.

I entered the City of London in 1984 ahead of Big Bang, becoming an accountancy-firm partner in 1987 with BDO Binder Hamlyn, and in 1995 a Grade 3 Director of Ministry of Defence research, at the time 40% of all UK government research.  During a mergers & acquisitions spell in merchant banking with Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, I co-founded Z/Yen, the City of London’s leading think-tank where I work, to promote societal advance through better finance and technology.  Along the way I gained professional qualifications in accountancy, securities & investment, and computing.

City & Livery

I have been passionate about the City since 1987 when I discovered my vote as an accountancy-firm partner, then Chairman, now President, of Broad Street Ward Club, a Trustee of the Lord Mayor’s Appeal, the Lord Mayor’s Show, and the Lord Mayor’s 800th Anniversary Awards Trust.   You may know me as the proud Alderman for Broad Street since 2013.  In addition I’m a Fellow of Goodenough College, Trustee of Christ’s Hospital and Morden College, and Council Member for City & Guilds.

I am passionate about the contributions of the livery as the Immediate Past Master of the Worshipful Company of World Traders, Honorary Liveryman of the Worshipful Companies of Furniture Makers, Water Conservators, and Marketors, Craft-Owning Freeman of the Watermen & Lightermen, and a member of the City Livery Club and Guild of Freemen.

My wife, Elisabeth, is from Bavaria.  We married in 1996 and have two daughters together, Xenia (21) and Maxine (18), along with my son, Nicholas (29).  Elisabeth trained in hotel management.  After working in Germany and London, she became a personal assistant to the managing partner of a large accountancy firm.  Setting up on her own, for over 20 years she ran a boat charter and restoration business for our Thames sailing barge, Lady Daphne.  She continues to work at her events company, Nymph Limited, and is also director of a property management company.  Elisabeth is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Masons and a Freeman Honoris Causa of the Worshipful Company of World Traders.

Work

As for understanding the City, my firm, Z/Yen, has done quite a bit of cutting-edge development from smart ledgers (aka blockchain technology) in 1995, to electronics, Long Finance & the London Accord, and the Global Financial Centres & Global Green Finance indices.   Our clients have included virtually all major investment banks, as well as many exchanges, insurers, fund managers, regulators, and financial information providers; along with numerous governments and technology companies.

I am a non-executive director of the United Kingdom Accreditation Service, overseeing laboratories and standards, and two AIM-listed firms.  I have written numerous academic and professional papers, but am proudest of my third book, co-written with Ian Harris, “The Price of Fish: A New Approach to Wicked Economics and Better Decisions”, which won the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards Finance, Investment & Economics Gold Prize.  I was designated a Gentiluomo of the Associazione Cavalieri di San Silvestro in 2011, won a 1996 UK Foresight Challenge award for the Financial Laboratory, a 2003 UK Smart Award for prediction software, and was British Computer Society Director of the Year for 2004. My biggest honour was the Mercers’ School Memorial Professor of Commerce chair (2005-2009) at Gresham College, founding home of the Royal Society, where I remain Emeritus Professor and Trustee.

My wider interests include skiing, woodcarving, dicing with bagpipes, racing sailboats, and dabbling in German, Italian, and French, but even worse Mandarin.  I retain deep links with the sailing barge community and the venerable Thames Match (1863).

Why?

Change is a City constant.  2019 and 2020 are no different (sic).  With four nationalities, UK, Ireland, Italy, and USA, I am ever more conscious of changes round the world.  A proud and permanent resident of London since 1984, I want to work to continue to keep the City pre-eminent as the world’s leading professional, business, technical, and financial services centre.  For me the three C’s are Commerce, the place where people create prosperity, Community, a cultural place where people work to enrich their environment, and Charity, where people champion diversity, openness, fairness, and opportunity.

If elected I will do my utmost to uphold the noble traditions of the Shrieval office.  It would be a privilege to use my experience to support the Lord Mayor’s and City of London Corporation’s programmes promoting the City and the UK in all its aspects.

I have the honour to be, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, your obedient servant,

Professor Michael Mainelli, Alderman and World Trader

Promoted by Ms Ruby Sayed CC, One Pump Court Chambers, Elm Court, Temple, London EC4Y 7AH,

on behalf of Professor Michael Mainelli FCCA FCSI (Hon) FBCS CITP CIC FIC CMC MEI, Z/Yen Group Limited, 41 Lothbury, London EC2R 7HG.

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Gresham Professors – Stand-up or Stand-down?

A talk given to one of my favourite communities:

 “Stand Up Or Stand Down”

Gresham Society AGM & Dinner

14 February 2019, National Liberal Club

The Gresham Society is a very serious organisation.  A Gresham lecture is supposed to be a serious intellectual occasion.  A Gresham Society address therefore should be an especially heavy and ponderous event.  I hope to disappoint.  Tonight I want to explore the role of humour in Gresham lectures.

On the way here Bob McDowall and Ian Harris asked what I would be speaking about.  When I told them, they said that was what they really like best about Gresham lectures, people getting up and speaking on new subjects about which they know nothing.

To start my exploration I asked the greatest living Gresham College lecture listener, Barbara Anderson, for some observations.  She had a few:

First, humour crops up where you least expect it.  Geometry.  Roger Penrose talking string theory while fumbling with his wet overhead acetates that he then overturned, smearing the projector, while the image turned out to be upside down as well.  Our universe is in safe hands.  But the Geometry humour prize must go to Robin Wilson who repeatedly proved in each lecture that the shortest distance between two puns is a straight line.

Second, humour gets us over awkward spots.  I remember Will Ayliffe talking about third world cataracts while showing a video of a piece of wood penetrating an eyeball for crude surgery.  He got us through all the squirmy, squeamish bits by diverting us with jokes and waving around his EpiPen.  I remember asking Will why he always waved around an EpiPen adrenaline injector at his lectures.  He explained that he treasured it.  “My best friend gave it to me when he was dying; it seemed very important to him that I had it.”

Third, humour can be a cheap shot for regaining audience attention.  Keith Kendrick, Gwen Griffith-Dickson, Raj Persaud, and Glenn Wilson, are a bit like the Father Ted character Father Jack Hackett, tossing the word “Sex” into their talks at regular intervals.   I myself particularly remember a Gresham Society talk a decade ago on “Sex” research, with the rueful throw-away line, “… and then there was my Canadian graduate student so earnest in researching S&M that he built a dungeon in his basement.  A shame that after the murder trial and the jail term he failed to complete his PhD…”

And then there’s Tim Connell, but we don’t have the time to analyse that.

Barbara concludes that it’s less about humour per se, more about having a way with words that makes difficult subjects amusing and therefore understandable.  I agree with Barbara, but want to dig a bit deeper.

Comedy is a fundamental literary genre juxtaposed with tragedy.  Comedy sets up tension by having more than one outcome.  Tragedy ends up only one way.  In a comedic tale an unstable situation is resolved for the most laughs.  In a tragic tale, everyone dies.  Of course, the real tragedy for me is having to live through it time and time again at the opera.

Of the six basic human emotions, comedy gets happiness, surprise and disgust, leaving sadness, fear, and anger for tragedy.

Humour serves many roles, for example as a literary device to help remember definitions.  What’s the difference between erotic and kinky?  “Erotic is when you use a feather.  Kinky is when you use the whole chicken”.  Or classifying animals.  How do you tell the difference between a brown bear and a grizzly bear?  Climb a tree.  The brown bear will come up after you.  The grizzly can’t climb.  He’ll tear the tree out by the roots.  Ambrose Bierce took this to the limit with his Devil’s Dictionary.  One snippet – “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

Humour can embed concepts. A Gresham professor droned on about linguistics, “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”  A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

According to Gresham College’s biggest competitor, Wikipedia, there are three dominant theories of humour – tension relief, superiority, and incongruity resolution.  A lecture has a lot of tension.  Will they turn up?  Will they listen?  Will they understand?  Will I have to buy drinks for everyone afterwards?  The biggest tension though between the lecturer and the audience is understanding how each other think.  Here’s one from a Commerce lecture:

One day a teacher asks her student Johnny, ‘Johnny, if there are two birds on a wire and I fire two barrels from a shotgun, how many birds will I hit?’.  ‘One, Miss’.  ‘Johnny, please listen, if there are two birds on a wire and I fire two barrels from a shotgun, how many birds will I hit?’.  ‘One, Miss’.  ‘Why Johnny?’.  ‘Well Miss, after you fire the first barrel the second bird will fly away.’  ‘Johnny, that’s the wrong answer, but I like the way you think.’

The next day Johnny comes into the classroom.  ‘Miss, my Dad says that I must save my allowance.  One bank offers me an educational booklet.  The other bank has a very pretty teller.  Which bank should get my account?’  The teacher blushes, and says, ‘Well, perhaps the one with the very pretty teller?’  Johnny replies, ‘No Miss, the one with the biggest government guarantee, but I like the way you think!’.

Keith, Gwen, Raj, and Glenn would probably have used the funnier, original, “Sex”ier joke about three women licking, sucking, and biting Italian ice cream, but the point is that tension release helps us see that other people may have different points of view.

On the other hand; you have different fingers [Steve Wright].  Turn to superiority.  Aristotle and Plato believed we used humour to feel superior to the ugly, the inferior, and the unfortunate.  We flaunt superiority in sarcasm or with jokes such as “There are 10 types of people in the world.  Those who understand binary and those who don’t.”  Of course Plato was in turn a victim of Diogenes the Kynic – Plato had defined Man as a featherless bipedal animal, and was applauded.  Diogenes brought a plucked chicken into the lecture-room with the words, “Behold Plato’s man”.

Yet I am most intrigued by the third theory of humour, incongruity resolution.  Here we also set up a tension, and then resolve it.

Steve Wright – “If you had a million Shakespeares, could they write like a monkey?” or given that alcohol is a solution, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate”.

From tension springs creativity.  Arthur Koestler proposed three domains of creativity – art, science, and comedy.  Creativity is the “shaking together of [already existing but] previously separate areas of knowledge, frames of perception or universes of discourse”.  Koestler wryly expresses the continuum from artistic inspiration, to scientific discovery, to comic inventiveness by the reaction induced, respectively the AH reaction (art), the AHA reaction (science) and HAHA reaction (comic).

Incongruity resolution exposes ‘scale changes’.  Scale changes are Zen-like moments of enlightenment.  You delight in changing scale when you move from believing that some carnival magician is just sleight of hand to the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, he or she is deploying genuine magic.  You delight in changing scale when you move from the wind-in-the-face exhilaration of a roller coaster at a fairground to staring at the loose rattling bolt inside the carriage with the terrifying realisation that some overworked carnival employee bolted it all together last night.  Scale changes inspire enlightenment, whether through the art in fractals, the power laws in science, or the sudden jolt in a double entendre.

My favourite jokes rely on scale change.  A couple book a flight on a four engine aircraft.  The husband looks to starboard to see one of the engines on fire, only to hear the Captain on the loudspeaker, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are dousing a fire in a starboard engine, but don’t worry, this aircraft is designed to fly safely on just three engines.  However, we will be one hour late to our destination.”  A little later, the husband turns to port to see one of the engines on fire, only to hear the Captain on the loudspeaker, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are dousing a fire in a port engine, but don’t worry, this aircraft is designed to fly safely on just two engines.  However, we will be three hours late to our destination.”  Still later, the husband turns to starboard again to see the second of the starboard engines on fire, only to hear the Captain tremulously on the loudspeaker, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are dousing a fire in a third engine and, while this is my first such experience in over two decades of flying, don’t worry, this aircraft is designed to fly safely on just one engine.  However, we will be six hours late to our destination.”  Hearing this, in frustration the husband turns to his wife – “If that fourth engine goes, we’ll be up here all night!”

I suspect you, like me, believe that humour provides a deep look into the soul of our fellow Man.  We like to think we have a profound connection to the personalities of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Clemens, Winston Churchill, or even Marie Antoinette from one of their quips.  Funnily enough, we have Albert Einstein to thank for a deep look into Margot Asquith’s soul.  “By way of pleasantry I must relate to you one of our mutual friend Lady Oxford’s latest. Having met Jean Harlow (the original platinum blonde) at a party the latter exuberantly began to call Margot Margott stressing the final t.  Margot (severely) — ‘The final “t” in my christian name is silent, unlike your family name’.”

As we start to move back to our drinks, I remember James Thurber, “One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough.”  Enough jokes, does humour help us gain an insight into Sir Thomas Gresham?  Having read John Guy’s wonderful biography, humour is in short supply.  Still, requiring lectures in English, as well as Latin, gun-running, stitching up his fellow merchants and the City, Thomas must have had some sense of humour.  I think that, comparatively, he was a tolerant man.  Religious tolerance, cultural tolerance, and intellectual tolerance.  And, if you look at your gift tonight, a commemorative coin Ian and I have had struck, you’ll see he remains tolerant about Gresham’s Law on the obverse and reverse.

For me, one of the greatest characteristics of the English people’s is their tolerance.  Allowing people to make fun and share humour in fair play.  Normally for the Gresham Society the “B” word is Bourse.  But tonight I just might point out that the current B word down the road seems to be leaching tolerance from our society.  It is not alone.  Political correctness taken too far, ‘woke’ snowflakes, and many other trends threaten tolerance.  And when humour is increasingly removed from social discourse, you know that tolerance is under threat.

So, “Sex”, any Gresham lecture that includes humour to get attention, get over awkward spots, aid definitions, or induce scale change enlightenment is a blow for tolerance and fair play.  So long as there is a genuine public space for humour, everything will be fine in the end.  And if it’s not fine, then it’s not the end.

Mark Twain described a dying man who couldn’t make up his mind which place to go — both have their advantages, “heaven for climate, hell for company!”  So may I ask you to raise a glass to the hellish company of the “Gresham Society and Sir Thomas Gresham”, with the refrain, “MAY GOOD LECTURES DRIVE OUT BAD.”