Magaland

October 25, 2020

You’ve been led astray by my title—a poor attempt at humor, as we watch the USA pitch and roll towards election day like the Trinidad, flagship of Fernão de Magalhães.

I’ve predicted over the last weeks that America will bid adieu to the orangutan on Nov 3rd, and nothing’s happened to change my mind. If anything, I’m more convinced now, with all debates done and a whopping fifty-six million votes already cast, compared to one hundred thirty-eight million in total in 2016 (58% of voters).

Of the fifty-six mil, 50% are registered democrats, 30% republicans, and 20% unaffiliated. Worst case, it’s fifty-fifty; best case? eighty-twenty. I’ll keep you posted, if you excuse the pun.

The US voter registration system differs from others. Some nations don’t need one—if you hold a national ID, as you would in Germany or Italy, then you’re automatically eligible to vote when you turn eighteen. But in the US, that isn’t the case, so you fill out a form. That form allows you to register as a democrat or republican, which gives you the right to vote in the primaries. Of course, just because you registered as a democrat doesn’t mean you’ll vote that way, but it is a general indicator.

Just in time to add a touch of mayhem to the race, comedian Baron Cohen released a movie pranking various aspects of US daily life, and showing Rudy Giuliani with ants in his pants.

That’s enough maga talk until after the election—let’s talk about the other maga—the one who sailed round the world. The Portuguese captain was called Magalhães—a man who provoked the wrath of King Manuel I of Portugal by sailing under the Spanish flag, but in fairness Manuel himself had treated the captain very poorly indeed, which created the conditions for Magellan to offer his services to Charles I of Spain.

Magellan was killed in the Philippines on April 27th, 1521, which has led to an argument about whether he circumnavigated the world—technically, since he died along the way, he did not.

His slave Henrique spoke the local Filipino language, which suggests he was a native of that region, although Portuguese documents describe him as a Malay from Malacca, originally from Sumatra.

Since Magellan purchased him in 1511 during the siege of Malacca—when Henrique was fourteen and the explorer was still fighting for his native country—that area of the world was already well known to the Portuguese.

Henrique sailed west back to Portugal after the siege, so National Geographic states that he qualifies as the first person to sail around the earth, albeit with a ten year gap—but of course, that logic also applies to Magellan, who sailed the western route with his slave from Malacca to Portugal between 1511-1512, so the only thing Magellan didn’t do was travel from the Philippines to Malacca—ten days’ plain sailing.

Magellan therefore deserves full credit, since the great feat of the expedition was to round the tip of South America and sail west across the Pacific, which was the missing link in circumnavigation.

The rest of the voyage home was difficult but not uncharted—line of sight navigation around Indonesia, including a stop at the Moluccas, which was the object of the expedition, and then the long trip southwest to the Cape of Good Hope, followed by the ‘torna-viagem’ discovered by Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama.

The armada sailed a more southerly route between Indonesia and Australia, then took advantage of the south equatorial current, a feature of all three major oceanic gyres in the southern hemisphere. By doing so, it avoided the pitfalls of the Indian Ocean monsoon, which killed half of Vasco da Gama’s crew.

The completion of the trip by Juan Sebastian Elcano will have pleased the Portuguese captain’s Spanish enemies, who were both numerous and powerful.

Most distinguished among these was Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, bishop of Burgos—he had been the chaplain of Isabel la Católica and managed the expeditions of Columbus. By the time Magellan arrived in Spain, Fonseca was the head of the Casa de Contratación in Seville, where I spent some happy days researching Clear Eyes.

Fonseca’s son—sorry, ‘nephew’—was forced onto Magellan as a crew member, along with many other Spaniards whose single purpose was to sabotage the voyage. When the whole business came to a head in Argentina, after the five ships has crossed the Atlantic using the great circle route discovered by Gama, the small but fearless Magellan was confronted with a mutiny of vast proportions, involving the captains of three other vessels.

The Victoria, Concepción, and San Antonio formed the base of the revolt, which took place at Puerto San Julian, located 49o south of the equator—the equivalent of Vancouver in the northern hemisphere.

Their captains underestimated the iron will of the Portuguese navigator—one was killed and two captured, as Magellan displayed a combination of courage and subterfuge matched only by his ruthlessness when the time came to punish the mutineers.

A XVIth century engraving provides an allegorical image of Magellan’s journey. The image appears in a NatGeo piece that questions whether the explorer can be credited with circumnavigating the globe.

This benign and somewhat psychedelic picture of the voyage—all the humanoids have their private parts concealed, an eagle pounces on an elephant in the background, a cherub ringed by St. Elmo’s fire hovers above the captain, and Magellan himself seems to be using a pair of dividers as a microphone to deliver a Karaoke tune—belies the barbary inflicted on the Spanish captains.

Mendoza, master of the Victoria, was fortunate because he was already dead, but that didn’t stop Magellan meting out the same torment as he inflicted on Gaspar Quesada, captain of the Concepción, who was very much alive.

Both were hung, drawn, and quartered. The common practice in the XVIth century was to lower the victim from the gibbet while moribund, stretch him to partly detach the limbs, and then quarter the body. Prior to drawing the half-dead Quesada, his abdomen was opened, and his entrails were removed and burned in front of him—this was before the days of post-traumatic stress.

Both corpses then had head and limbs removed—these were boiled with herbs for preservation so they might be displayed to the crew.

…In the immortal words of the French revolution during the guillotine period, ‘pour encourager les autres…’

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Excel

October 18, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, the UK government discovered it had missed reporting 16,000 cases of coronavirus to the British public—the culprit? Our trusty friend Excel.

Let me take you for a spin down memory lane.

The Microsoft suite of productivity applications has been around for a long time, but it wasn’t always king of the castle.

The names were brilliantly chosen—the text (or word) processing application was called Word, but the big boys in the 1980s were two other packages: WordStar and WordPerfect—both of them are more or less consigned to the dung heap of silicon, although the Canadian company Corel, which trawls the software trash landfill like an eight-year-old Filipino child, still sells the latter.

The law of unintended consequences: while hunting for an IT trash pile, I spent a hideous quarter of an hour shivering at images like this.

Along with the writing software came a sister app for propeller heads—once again, the pioneers were VisiCalc for the Apple IIE, soon followed by the blockbuster Lotus 1-2-3. These were killer apps predicated on the simplest of concepts—enter one number into a cell on a table, do something to it in another cell—for instance multiply it by five—and when you change the contents of the original cell its sibling automatically updates.

Lotus 1-2-3 was the brainchild of Mitch Kapor, who later went on to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Mozilla, the parents of Firefox—the browser that killed Internet Explorer.

Excel was a timid competitor, but it had the better name. It was also unusual for a Mickeysoft product in that it was relatively bug-free—where Word and Powerpoint had more bugs than a termite mound, Excel rarely crashed.

As Microsoft increased its world dominance, the Office suite won the day and Lotus vanished, along with tentative offerings such as Borland’s Quattro. Borland went bust, but Corel still offers the package in its cobweb-laden dungeon of Office clones, and you can even download an MS-DOS version—I bet it still works!

These were top-class apps written by excellent programmers—folks who had to fight against the main limitations of the day: computer memory, disk capacity, and screen resolution—none of these are a headache today.

Quattro Pro had two features that took a while to come to Excel—tabbed worksheets (forming the concept of a workbook), and the ability to handle a million rows.

The reason for the worksheets is obvious—due to computer memory limitations, spreadsheets only had 256 columns—and back in 1995, when I was beginning to get onto the internet, Excel only had 16,384 rows. By 2002 it had 65,536 rows but still only 256 columns.

Why all these geeky, weird numbers? You obviously don’t know any computer programmers! All these are the result of 2 multiplied by itself repeatedly. You get 256 by multiplying 2 eight times, the other values by multiplying it fourteen and sixteen times.

Finally, in 2007, Excel took advantage of the appearance of 32-bit microprocessors, which can deal with much larger numbers, and it bumped up the number of rows to 1,048,576 (or 2 multiplied 20 times)—for ordinary folks like you and me, that’s a million rows. It also bumped the columns to 16,384.

When you save an Excel file, it gets given an extension. The problem is your PC likes to hide extensions—if, like me, you want to see them, you have to ask. The Mac always hid extensions and the PC always suffered from Mac envy—the Mac was the handsome kid at school who got all the girls and the PC was the nice guy with acne and greasy hair who worked hard at sports to try to be popular.

If you use an older Excel file (the extension is xls)—and I still get these all the time—then you’re stuck with 65,536 rows. If, on the other hand, you use the updated version, which has an extension called xlsx, you can handle a million rows.

The UK government outsourced their COVID work to a company called Serco Test and Trace. On the Companies House site, this corporation is called Serco Limited—it changed its name from R.C.A. Limited in 1987.

It isn’t immediately clear to me what skills Serco has that make it invaluable to the job at hand, but there we are—the Johnson government obviously knew better.

What we do know is that they were using Excel with the older file extension, and almost 16,000 case files fell off the pier, with a nasty knock-on effect for contact tracing.

An article in Foreign Policy reviews this cock-up and sums up the dangers of Excel beautifully.

Excel is almost universally misused for complex data processing, as in this case—because it’s already present on your work computer and you don’t have to spend months procuring new software. So almost every business has at least one critical process that relies on a years-old spreadsheet set up by past staff members that nobody left at the company understands.

I have personally seen this time and time again—Excel is a magnet for human error, the digital corollary of the law of unintended consequences.

The main conclusion of all this is that governments, and any other institutions dealing with large numbers, must never entrust data to a spreadsheet package. And never, ever for public health, let alone a pandemic.

Just as in accounting you need a double-entry ledger that performs its own calculations, so for archiving patient test data—particularly on a nationwide scale—the only solution is a database into which test results can be entered directly, much like an Amazon purchase—when was the last time you bought the wrong product?

Pretty sad stuff, all in all, and terrible for the credibility of the government ‘strategy.’

In parallel, British chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, struggling to resuscitate the economy, promoted an Artificial Intelligence site designed to facilitate job search. The website, https://beta.nationalcareers.service.gov.uk/assessment/short/ is available for all to try, so I did.

This was partly triggered by a UK government ad.

Is stupidity more contagious than coronavirus? Curious minds want to know.

The ad predictably upset many artists, who are struggling to survive in these terrible times, and led to this brilliant spoof of Dame Judi Dench.

For my part, the AS (Artificial Stupidity) site ran me through a range of questions before telling me my future prospects. In construction, it recommended a new life as a dry liner or shop fitter. In beauty and health care I was selected as a nail technician or hairdresser. However, if the uniform holds more of an attraction, I am well suited to becoming a soldier or security guard.

Since the test does not take into account age or sex, M was just the choice to become a scaffolder at the ripe age of eighty-five.

We can all be excused for going a little bit nuts at the moment, but the only solution we have is to borrow money and support the economy while we wait this one out.

If we can borrow gazillions to fight wars, win elections, and bail out banks—all shitty reasons to borrow—we can do the same for the pandemic, and pay those who are distressed.

There is no ambiguity here. The mission of the moment is to save lives, not livelihoods.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Lost Summer

October 10, 2020

Before I start these articles, I always do two things: read the previous blog—and often make small corrections—and look at the site stats, which are broken down into daily views, but can be scaled to a period of two and a half years.

I haven’t figured out how to view a larger period, but one glaring difference between this year and the previous two is the summer viewing—normally it decreases quite significantly, and for good reasons—vacations, travel, beaches, picnics, family, rock festivals, bars and restaurants…

Ah yes, he says wistfully, the usual suspects.

This summer, the readership was up like never before, but I don’t see that as progress in my writing quality—my texts have become monotonic—much like our lives. Fact is, we have more time to dispense on these pursuits, for the lack of all the good reasons above.

We’re currently going through one of the greatest tests human society has ever encountered, in part because of its global nature—and we’re wholly unprepared for the fractures a mere six months have caused.

If you read newspaper articles from a century ago, much of what happened in different parts of the world was slow to propagate—there was no TV, no efficient communications, and no rapid form of transport in everyday use, so newspapers were it—the BBC World Service was only founded in 1932.

Whenever politicians discuss the current crisis, the word war is bandied about. We are ‘at war against the virus’, there’s an ‘invisible enemy’, this is a ‘battle we can win’.

War is something we’re very familiar with—many people through personal experience: Yemenis, Georgians, Rwandans, Vietnamese, Afghans—from the stats, these are not the folks who read these pieces—in digital, there’s a chasm between haves and have-nots.

My familiarity with war comes from my youth and the Portuguese wars in Africa in the 1960s and early 1970s—I narrowly missed first-hand experience, but I know many who fought in Angola, Mozambique, and elsewhere—any trip to those countries shows the evidence to this day, from unexploded mines to unattached limbs.

In the US and UK, France and Germany, everyone had a family member who was involved in World War II in some capacity. For Jews, there’s the indelible trauma of the holocaust.

But above all, there is a historical memory since time immemorial (sorry), that human existence and war are indissociable—only the League of Nations and the League for Spiritual Discovery believe otherwise.

War has a couple of common features—the first is unity, the whole us-against-them thing. No matter what happens, god is on our side.

The second feature is the comprehension—if we don’t know what the fight is about, the body count quickly takes precedence over the moral high ground, as Country Joe McDonald (no relation to Ronald) explained to the good folks at Woodstock, a good number of whom were enthusiastic supporters of the League for Spiritual Discovery.

The third aspect is that we know war will end, our side will win, and we will rest our moral superiority on the bones of our dead enemies—this is a Cartesian fairy tale that has won the day time and time again in the web weaved by rulers to ensnare the ruled.

The consequences of this minute little fucker, responsible for COVID-19 going on for 21, are unpredictable. We can confidently state it has really screwed up our lives, but we can’t make any confident statements about the degree to which we are collectively fucked, and how long this will last.

We can also lay blame—and China is clearly to blame for the initial spread of the virus. But invading China will not solve the problem, and in any case lack of transparency is one of the defining traits of a dictatorship, along with political prisoners and self-perpetuation of power. So why the surprise?

When Western countries first reacted to the news of the new pandemic—some well before its classification as such by the WHO on March 19th, 2020—there were way too many economic interests at stake to take drastic action, and, as is always the case with humans, we underestimated the danger—think climate change.

The ultimate victory—coronavirus takes the White House.

The usual human remedy in crisis, i.e. killing each other until the problem goes away, isn’t a direct choice in this case—but indirectly, this is where we are moving towards. There are vocal advocates of taking a similar approach to what happened during the medieval plagues.

To the extent that economic returns are not compromised, protect the vulnerable. Those who don’t die will thrive, the plague will fade away, and hey presto, we’re back to business as usual.

This is a narrative many people subscribe to, even if means saying goodbye to granny a few years early.

In the West, politicians—or at least some of them—are attempting to do the right thing. Control the spread, save lives, and sustain the economy.

The UK prime minister explained the policy in a nutshell to the British people during the Brexit campaign.

We want to have our cake and eat it too.

It’s not going to happen with Brexit, and it won’t happen with the virus either.

In the United Kingdom, that synergy is a perfect storm—it may well result in a country with no cake and an empty stomach.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Day The Music Died

October 3, 2020

I was playing in the band last night.

It’s always fun, loud, and late. We tried some acoustic stuff, a little more mellow.

There was a guy there, sitting in—not jamming, just listening—a bass player with a metal band. He stayed the course—about four hours’ worth—so I guess he was having fun, and even though it was an audience of one, it put an edge on the music.

In the breaks, we talked about this and that. Foremost, about music and musicians. Killer versions of particular songs, old guys still smoking dope who had trouble remembering lyrics, a Brazilian dude who could do more with a snare and a couple of other drums that most guys with a full kit, and of course, gear. Snare drums at two grand? Are you kidding me?

Time to put up my favorite Goodfellas meme (again).

We had a go at singing a very beautiful love song—Baby I Love Your Way, by Peter Frampton. It’s sung in a very high register, so our audience’s suggestion was to detune the guitars—that way, you keep the chord structure, which is also beautiful.

Of course, that means detuning a couple of electric guitars and the bass—hardship duty, really, for just one tune. Not a problem for our friend, “you just need three other instruments tuned to the right key.”

But it was audiences and musicians that we turned to most often. The former have disappeared, and the latter are on their way out.

This disaster is true across the performing arts, but to different degrees—movies now have a sitting room audience, with much viewing going on in sub-zero temperatures, as in Netflix ‘n chill. Soaps are ten-a-penny, with new series—mostly crap—popping out of the woodwork daily.

So I guess actors are still doing okay—all the way from adverts to Oscars.

But where it all breaks down is with live music, and that’s across the board. From rock in bars to elevator music in hotel dining rooms, performers are going through a terrible year.

But let’s face it, rock is particularly bad. Badly paid anyhow, it’s all about crowds, drink, drugs, and excitement—talk about COVID-friendly.

The famous 1970s hit American Pie sings about ‘the day the music died’, widely considered to be a reference to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper.

Van Morrison, seventy-five years old—and now Sir Van, which sounds like a resurrection of British Leyland—is releasing three anti-lockdown songs in protest of scientists “making up crooked facts” to justify measures that “enslave” the population.

He goes on to sing “The new normal, is not normal, We were born to be free.”

I’ve always been a big fan of his, and I think artists need strong support this year that the music died, but this isn’t the way to go, as another chap in his age group recently discovered.

Oops, wrong turn…

The US opposition leaders who’ve come out to wish the orange man a speedy recovery—although I expect they’d suggest that as a precaution he remain in hospital for thirty-one days—have shown America a high road which has been sadly lacking, as seen in the presidential debate.

I too wish him and his family well, and a quick return in full health to whatever the future may bring after leaving the office he currently holds.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Paradigm

September 26, 2020

It’s one of those beautiful words, like palindrome, profligate, or serendipity. I had written scatological, which is a beautiful word, but not a beautiful concept—then I got side-tracked looking at some pretty gross cartoons, and I found one that tickled my fancy.

More palindromic than scatological. Perhaps scatodromic.

Scatodromic? Turns out it means shit passage—some Ancient Greek will be turning in his grave!

The alternative was palinlogical, which unfortunately is an oxymoron (another favorite word), when you consider how senseless the bridge-to-nowhere vice-presidential candidate was.

As if powered by the perfect segway, this brings me to the bun—sorry, I meant nub—of the matter.

When a paradigm shifts (it never changes—for some reason it always shifts), humans have a hard time understanding they’re now in a new reality.

If you go to jail, have a serious illness, suffer a family breakdown, or the bereavement of a relative or a close friend, your adjustment process is a paradigm shift.

If you catch HIV in jail, your wife leaves you, and your poor, heartbroken mother dies, you have a quadradigm to deal with—and this kind of scatos happens.

2020 should be called the year of the paradigm—this is when everything went tits-up. No doubt some Queue-A-moron will discover that Voynich’s mystery alphabet gobbledybook predicted there would come a year where the first half equaled the second, and that would be 20-20. Then someone else will remark that 1919 was the exact center of the Spanish flu, and the plot thickens.

I predict something very tragic will happen in 2121, and since I won’t be around to watch, I’m very confident it will happen.

When a paradigm shifts, everyone runs around like headless chickens wondering when it will all get back to normal. Then folks start talking about the ‘new normal’. When that happens, the paradigm has already shifted.

Before the coronavirus hit, the cruise industry was worth one hundred and fifty billion dollars per year. By mid-June 2020, forty thousand employees were reported stranded on board empty ships, working with no pay.

Chinese tourists were predicted to make one hundred sixty million trips abroad this year. Sounds a lot, but it means one in ten celestials would travel overseas, or perhaps one in twenty took two vacations per year—now that sounds more in line with the egalitarian way.

Tourism is fascinating because unlike most other businesses it thrives on externalities—it sells something it doesn’t make. Ancient monuments, stunning views, beautiful beaches, rainforest… my job is to take you there, and charge a premium for the experience.

If when you depart, a legacy of plastic garbage, increased road congestion, and air pollution remains, the tourism industry doesn’t internalize the costs.

I’ve written about this previously, based on personal experience in major cities that have lost their centers to Airbnb—locals have left the old quarters of Barcelona, Venice, and Lisbon as prices skyrocket and local commerce becomes completely de-characterized, selling American food, Netflix latte, and Chinese souvenirs.

Venice received thirty million visitors every year, while the locals migrated to Mestre and other nearby towns—now the streets are devoid of selfie sticks and the canals have seahorses and dolphins.

Work has been completely discombobulated—oooh, another juicy word.

Office space in big cities doesn’t know if it’s Martin or Mandy, all the catering industry that surrounds it—both external and internal—is in crisis, urban transport systems are morphing, and a lot of folks have discovered they’re very happy to work from home.

Education is a real issue—social media have been bad enough in destroying direct human interaction, but home schooling takes away the critical factor of classroom interaction. Kids learn more from other kids than they do from teachers.

So… work, leisure, education… what’s left, relationships? In the UK, which never talks about sex, I saw the health secretary blushing with embarrassment this week when asked by a lady interviewer how the rules applied to relationships.

In plain English (my words, not hers), given the current rules of association, how long do two people need to know each other before they can have a fuck?

I don’t know where we’ll end up, but one thing’s for sure—it’ll be somewhere else.

It’s enough to give you a brain pain, so I’ll leave you with a sensible (and palindromic) recipe.

Stressed?Desserts.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Crazy Islands

September 19, 2020

Perhaps because of the travel freeze, I’ve been dreaming about a faraway setting for my next book—it’ll be a historical novel, building on The India Road and Clear Eyes, and will be set in the sixteenth century.

By the early 1500s, Spain was enthusiastically moving towards the New World—by the turn of the century, Columbus had completed his third voyage to the misnamed Indies—while Portugal expanded its reach in the old world.

Cabral sailed for India in 1500, ‘discovering’ Brazil for Portugal in the process. As I wrote in Clear Eyes, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón discovered Brazil in 1499—there is evidence he landed in Pernambuco, a state in the northeast. However, the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed five years earlier, meant that the new territory was on the Portuguese side of the meridian line splitting the unknown world between the two Iberian nations.

The Wikipedia entry for Pinzon credits him with the discovery of Brazil, whereas the entry for Pernambuco categorically states it was discovered by the Portuguese. This is one of the weaknesses of Wikipedia—when you jump to the second page from the first, the narratives don’t match.

Vasco da Gama sailed again for India in 1502 to consolidate the ‘hostile trading’ approach—gunboats were the essence of his persuasive powers to force the locals to grant  trade monopolies to Portugal.

My main reasons for writing Clear Eyes were to debunk the myth that Columbus was a visionary mariner and to provide a balanced view of the two most important seafaring nations of the time, both located in the Iberian Peninsula. I believe it matters that the whole eastern endeavor was well organized and took decades to plan, whereas the attempt to find a western passage to the Indies was haphazard at best.

The most likely setting for my new book is Indonesia—the Portuguese were most certainly there, as evidenced by words such as gereja (church), jendela (window), and sepatu (shoe). Loanwords that appear in other languages are the linguistic equivalent of a genetic marker and tend to be used for concepts or items that are foreign to the country—churches were certainly a XVIth century novelty in Java and Sumatra, and given the climate, windows and shoes likewise.

Of course, the Portuguese were in search of trade, and their quest took them to the spice islands of Maluku, in eastern Indonesia.

The English, with their natural ear for other languages, mispronounced them Moluccas (Molukken in Dutch), but the etymology is clear—these were the crazy islands (Malucas) of the Portuguese, where the ship’s compass behaved in erratic fashion.

The Ilhas Malucas, from a map drawn in 1613 by Dutch cartographer Johannes Blaeu.

But is that really the origin of the name? The Arabs were in Indonesia from the XIVth century onward—which partly explains why Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation—and the spice islands were apparently called Jazirat al-Muluk, the Island of Kings.

Which raises another interesting question: does the Portuguese word for crazy come from the Arab word for king? In Arabic, crazy is مجنون (majnun). Google Translate spells ‘king’ as malik, but clearly malik and muluk are the same word, just rendered differently in the European alphabet.

The crazy islands are the only places in the world where nutmeg and cloves are grown—in XVIIth century London, ladies held an orange stuck with cloves to their delicate nose to ward off the disgusting smell of running sewers.

Indonesia is a fascinating paradox, so I won’t be short of great material, all of it true—and often much stranger than fiction. As an example, Thailand is renowned for it’s third gender—generally called ladyboys—but Indonesia also has an abundance of transgender folks, a perplexing characteristic for a Muslim country.

In Bahasa Indonesia, the word for woman is wanita, and the word for man is pria—transgenders are termed warias, a contraction of the two words. Many warias are sex workers, but other jobs are also popular—when President Obama lived in Jakarta as a youngster, his nanny, Edie, was a waria.

Given the polygamous nature of Islam, some men have both female wives and waria—a somewhat unusual arrangement in the penis-count department.

One of the main differences between waria and ladyboys is that whereas in Thailand, for many transgenders an aspirational aim is to save money for a sex change, warias are not that keen.

The main reason is religious.

We believe we were born as men and must return to god as men.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The Now People

September 12, 2020

In North America and Europe, we live in a bubble of Now.

It’s also true in parts of the East, but there’s a philosophy that permeates Eastern thought—and thus Eastern society—that makes it less ‘now-ish’.

In the West, this fall, it’s all about consumption—after I typed that word, I realized it has a glorious trifecta of symbolism.

I meant that we are consumed (i.e. obsessed) by news events, be they the US election, Brexit, or The Rule of Six (sounds like a bad Amazon Prime title).

But consumption, in the present-day sense of purchasing goods and services, is a major concern for business—think office properties, commercial locations, conferences, trade shows, airlines, hospitality…

Finally, consumption is a synonym of tuberculosis, and although what presently choke-holds our economy is a virus—a far greater challenge than a bacterium—the vast majority of people don’t know the difference between the two, and probably don’t give a shit.

I can’t think of anything more confused than COVID policy orientation in the US and UK. In the States, we seem to be looking at various different nations, sporting separate rule-books, political attitudes, and citizen uptake.

If you only thing of Now, you’re always on a lead.

It’s now clear that some minority communities are hardest hit by the virus, but not why. There is a racial bias in some illnesses, due for instance to metabolic differences, but I suspect here we’re dealing with morbidity, very possibly related to factors such as income, diet, housing, and others—in any analysis of this kind, it’s very difficult to reach objective conclusions.

As a result, people reach subjective ones, and in our Now world, happily put them forward as gospel today, only to denounce tomorrow, when a complete new set of pseudo-facts becomes available.

To understand what folks want to know, a good guide is posing half-questions on Google, and letting the computer do its thing—applying artificial intelligence to guess what you want to know. I’ve selected a few of the more interesting—or possibly bizarre.

Why are b

Why are bees so important

Why are bones good for dogs

Why are f

Why are flies attracted to me

Why are farts so funny

Why are p

Why are Portuguese so short

Why are Pisces so good in bed

The most popular questions are in the areas of personal affliction, doubts on love—you can find the ‘good in bed’ question for any star sign—and… insects. Flies, mosquitoes, bees, bugs—all seem to hold a strange fascination for surfers.

Quarantine rules are perhaps the best example of line-of-sight navigation. The UK keeps bumping nations on and off their list, and dealing with irate citizens who find their plans completely upended, travel agents and airlines with profits in the doghouse, and politicians let loose on endless rants.

In Saudi, break quarantine and face two years in jail. In Taiwan, a guy who violated quarantine was fined $33,000. In England kids are included in the ‘rule of six’, in Scotland and Wales they’re not.

It all reminds me of the classic W roast about the axis of evil.

What’s really sad is how smart W looks compared to Now.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Queue Who?

September 5, 2020

As I enjoy the dog days of summer, these articles may well run a little shorter. I suspect the wet weather of the late fall may bulk them up again—we’ll see.

One curiosity is whether shorter texts will increase readership. We’ll investigate that also.

My title is a play on the name QAnon, and is based on an article I read a few weeks ago, which suggests the appeal of the conspiracy site is at least partly due to its role-playing computer game parallels.

Protesters in London last Saturday—the signs fuse anti-COVID conspiracy with pedophile paranoia.

What do QAnon and organic farming have in common—they’re both in the business of spreading bullshit.

Coronavirus has been a choice target. As usual, the ignorance of the common man, the tendency to ignore, disregard, or ridicule things you can’t understand, and the colossal—and colossally dangerous—reach of social media is taking us into a very deep and sinuous rabbit hole.

When the Scotsman Charles Mackay released Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in 1841, such delusions, and their accompanying madness, propagated far slower within a society—Twitter is different.

The short message and the long reach are a lethal combination. The approach is a combination of Ponzi scheme and Tupperware Party—but with feedback.

A popular craziness is that “President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.” Somehow, this is confabulated with the (para)concept that Coronavirus is a hoax, deaths are fake, and there is an ongoing conspiracy to poison us all.

The orang-u-tan loves it, fielding his usual measure of half-truths and obscure references—he’s a master at converting ignorance into insinuation. “…I’ve heard they support me, they love this country…”—the litany of crap goes on and on.

Q is a Trump administration official, in the QAnon game. He has a high-level clearance, and therefore access to the most secret information—stuff that puts Hillary Clinton into a hideous sack of Democrat pedophiles whose satanic practices will in time be revealed. With the proper proportion of Netflix drama, these criminals will be executed.

The interpretation of these Q releases is beautifully summarized in an article in the Atlantic.

You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Donald Trump stands between you and a damned and ravaged world. You see plague and pestilence sweeping the planet, and understand that they are part of the plan. You know that a clash between good and evil cannot be avoided, and you yearn for the Great Awakening that is coming. And so you must be on guard at all times. You must shield your ears from the scorn of the ignorant. You must find those who are like you. And you must be prepared to fight.

You know all this because you believe in Q.

If this doesn’t sound like the plot of a terrible movie, or a video game played by anxious teens, what does?

Queue Who People (and they walk among us) are hoaxed by satanic pedophiles like myself who insist on telling them there is no global conspiracy.

They tell them that the nonsensical manuscript of Voynich, purportedly written in the XVth century in a secret alphabet, could not possibly support or predict these hidden ‘truths’, that this discussion is a recurring one when we speak of prophets and seers like Nostradamus, or read (as I have) the ramblings of the Illuminati or L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the church of scientology (shockingly, my spell-checker flags this as a typo unless I capitalize—I kindly refuse).

And Peter Wibaux, that renowned democrat cannibal (or is it the other way round) will tell them that pseudoscience doesn’t count. Science is truth. Not religion, not love, not money, not herbalism, not Voodoo, not creationism, not McCarthyism, not the Atkins diet, not Voynich, and certainly not the non-existent Q. These are belief systems, and a few, such as love and yoga, are good for you.

Most are not. Those are constructed and propounded by people who gain from your belief. They may gain financially, directly or indirectly, they may gain in status or self-esteem, and some of those people gain only in their sick little minds, happy they brainwashed a bunch of gullible folks.

To the sinister people behind QAnon—you know who you are—I can only quote Churchill: “Do your worst, and we will do our best!”

One of the favorite Q-Who memes is ‘do your own research.’ The implication is that you’ll find dark, discomforting, deep state conspiracies you never knew were there—all will be revealed.

Here are a couple of verses from Bob Dylan’s Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues. They describe a poor fool hunting commies, who these days would Q-Who.

…I was lookin’ high an’ low for them Reds everywhere
I was lookin’ in the sink an’ underneath the chair
I looked way up my chimney hole
I even looked deep inside my toilet bowl
They got away…

Well, I fin’ly started thinkin’ straight
When I run outta things to investigate
Couldn’t imagine doin’ anything else
So now I’m sittin’ home investigatin’ myself
Hope I don’t find out anything, hm, great God

God bless you, Bob.

As for me, I’ve done my research. Not just today, but for a good long time.

SCIENCE IS TRUTH.

That’s what I found. Now it’s your turn.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Tears of Salt

August 29, 2020

Cod is one of my recurring themes—over the last decade, I wrote three or four articles on the enduring battle between Man and the elements—centuries of expeditions to the fishing grounds of the north Atlantic.

The Portuguese have fished bacalhau in Newfoundland since the XVth century—the earliest records are from 1472, when the Azorean captain Joao Vaz Corte Real first made landfall, christening the territory ‘Terra dos Bacalhaus.’

There are multiple stories of Portuguese journeys further west—and a statue of his son Gaspar in front of the confederation building in St. John’s. The Corte Real family were mariners and armadores—fleet owners—and in search of the lucrative cod grounds, it is entirely possible that the sons, or some of their captains, made landfall and explored parts of eastern Canada.

In these exploits, Joao Vaz and his two sons Miguel and Gaspar were covertly encouraged by the Perfect Prince, John II of Portugal, who was banned by the 1479 Treaty of Alcaçovas from securing overseas possessions north of the Canaries—Las Islas Afortunadas.

All this took place well before the time of John Cabot, the man credited with the European discovery of Canada; there is a strong possibility that the Bay of Fundy was named by the Azorean explorers—with a maximum depth of one hundred nine fathoms, the name  Baía Funda (Deep Bay) is most appropriate—phonetically, the English pronunciation of the two words is practically identical.

Almost all the cod fishermen from mainland Portugal came from one of three locations: the southeastern Algarve, particularly the area around Fuseta, the central town of Aveiro, and the northwestern village of Vila do Conde, near Oporto.

Aveiro has been famous for centuries for its salt—sal, in Portuguese—from which the word salary derives. Considered the best in Europe, it was essential over the centuries for preserving food—and thus surviving winter—prior to refrigeration.

To the south of Aveiro, the small fishing village of Ílhavo was the main source of men who joined the yearly campaigns run by the Salazar government for fishing the Grand Banks.

Some of the men who spent six to eight months of the year fishing for bacalhau in Newfoundland and Greenland, using tiny boats called dories.

The council built a museum to honor the Campanha do Bacalhau, and they have a digital site where you can find any fisherman by name—because of the national obsession with administration, particularly during the control-freak period of fascism, a very complete database is available, which even tells you whether each person had a catholic wedding!

Surnames in Portugal, as in other countries, are regionally distributed—in the photo I selected, most of the fellows called Manuel Pata are from Ilhavo. One of them was a ship captain—I wonder if you can guess from the face which one. If you search for Guerreiro (Warrior), almost all the men are from the Algarve.

The museum is of course conditioned by COVID-19, but it remains open, and its main exhibits are in two adjacent halls, one of which houses a replica of the upper part of a two-mast schooner (lugre, in Portuguese)—although the ones that went on the campaigns that began in the 1930s were four-masters.

Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to board the vessel—I didn’t see any kids on my visit, but there’s nothing kids would remember better than scampering around on the huge deck.

Other parts of the display are less interesting, but next to the ticket office there’s an amazing metal sculpture of a cod—I spent some time trying to discover who made it, and how I can get one for myself—stay tuned.

A few of the old lugres have survived—the Creoula is a naval training ship, and the Santa Maria Manuela was bought and rebuilt by Portugal’s largest cod producer—it now belongs to a major food retailer.

The ship was named after the owner’s wife—she had sixteen kids, so maybe she had the patience of a saint.

Trawlers gradually replaced line fishing, and when the United Nations approved the Law of the Sea and the creation of Exclusive Economic Zones, the game was up.

Life was harsh on board the schooners, with men sleeping at the bow, two to a cot, for only a few hours a night. Fishing started at dawn, which during spring and summer at higher latitudes means 4 a.m., and work often ended only at midnight, by the time fish were salted, livers and tongues removed, gear repaired and stowed.

Brave men, escaping poverty, providing for their family, and paying a terrible price—many of the men were back on the ships every year, during which their children grew up without a father. Dories got lost at sea and in the fog—the Grand Banks are the foggiest place on earth.

Now, how about that captain?

He’s the young guy with the mustache in the bottom row.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Work

August 22, 2020

Cyril Parkinson is a bit like Bob Dylan—people know the stuff he wrote rather than the man himself.

This is often the case with aphorisms—the net (or the cloud, or the web, or whatever floats your boat) is full of quotes that are wrongly attributed—it’s also full of quotes that are just plain wrong; part of my job when I write is not to propagate stuff that’s fake—we have the orange man for that.

If you listen to a radio station you can trust, or (less likely) a TV channel you can trust, then some (hopefully all) triage has been done for you—but if I write about it, I always check—as they teach you in the CIA, trust but verify.

Parkinson wrote for The Economist, the kind of technical magazine you can trust—as a rule of thumb, anything the orang-u-tan says you can’t trust is probably reliable.

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

is probably Parkinson’s most famous aphorism—like Murphy, Parkinson is credited with this universal law. In his book—he actually wrote several books, because unlike myself he was a trained historian, rather than an amateur—he provides an example of the application of Parkinson’s law.

Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half an hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the mailbox in the next street. The total effort that would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety, and toil.

Bognor Regis is a ‘resort’ of sorts in southern England, popular with seniors—when I lived in the UK, we used to call it ‘the last resort’—clearly they’re still struggling with that today (the sidebars on that site kind of say it all).

Parkinson’s more general point is that administration expands and fills its own space without increasing its efficiency. There are two axioms of his law that can immediately be stated.

(1) “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” and (2) “Officials make work for each other.”

Uncle Cyril then provides us a rambling, nonsensical, but highly amusing example of such a situation—my familiarity with both the public and private sector tells me this has the golden ring of truth. His narrative begins with an overworked civil servant called A.

For this real or imagined overwork there are three possible remedies. He may resign; he may ask to halve the work with a colleague called B; he may demand the assistance of two subordinates called C and D. There is probably no instance in history of A choosing any but the third alternative. By resignation he would lose his pension rights. By having B appointed, on his own level in the hierarchy, he would merely bring in a rival for promotion to W’s vacancy when W retires. So A would rather have C and D, junior men, below him. They will add to his consequence and, by dividing the work into two categories, as between C and D, he will have the merit of being the only man who comprehends them both. It is essential to realize at this point that C and D are, as it were, inseparable. To appoint C alone would have been impossible, because C, if by himself, would divide the work with A and so assume almost the equal status that has been refused in the first instance to B; a status the more emphasized if C is A’s only possible successor. Subordinates must thus number two or more, each being thus kept in order by fear of the other’s promotion. When C complains in turn of being overworked (as he certainly will) A will, with the concurrence of C, advise the appointment of two assistants to help C. But he can then avert internal friction only by advising the appointment of two more assistants to help D, whose position is much the same. With this recruitment of E, F, G, and H the promotion of A is now practically certain. Seven officials are now doing what one did before. This is where Factor 2 comes into operation. For these seven make so much work for each other that all are fully occupied and A is actually working harder than ever. An incoming document may well come before each of them in turn… finally A reads through the draft with care, deletes the fussy paragraphs added by C and H, and restores the thing back to the form preferred in the first instance by F. He corrects the English and finally produces the same reply he would have written if officials C to H had never been born. Far more people have taken far longer to produce the same result. No one has been idle. All have done their best.

Believe me, I condensed the quote for brevity—I expect Cyril’s text expanded into the time available.

During the last few months of COVID lockdown, an entirely different pattern evolved. Folks who previously spent their time looking busy in the office because they had to, discovered a different way. Apart from the obligatory, occasional Zoom, they lurk in the shadows, hidden from the boss.

As a result, they reversed the law. In lockdown, it can be restated as: work compresses into the time required. This is how I work, even at play. Unless unscheduled drama is afoot, I know I need about three hours every week to write these articles—if I don’t have a topic, it’s worse, but this week I had three to choose from—one about a Jimi Hendrix roadie turned porn impresario (he ran a company with the tasteful name of Fuck Factory in New York), and one about the US conventionfest.

If I can write what I want in less time, great. But usually, that’s the way it rolls.

So, after you’ve finished your work at home (or on the beach) spending only the time it really takes, you’re free to walk the dog, netflix ‘n chill, or even read my blog. At the office, you can never let on you’ve done the work because then they’ll give you more—but not pay you more.

Then there’s a third class of folks, who feel they must fill that whole working time—there’s a guilt trip there, like phoning in sick to the office when you’re really okay.

I sit somewhere in that category, because I like to do stuff pretty much all the time. But, the line between work and play is fuzzy for me—hacking a few lines of code to get an editable version of Parkinson’s book is fun for me (too lazy to type an uneditable pdf), as is writing this blog or my new book, putting in two hours of blues practice on a guitar, or analyzing the sustainability of oyster farming in Texas—it’s a broad church.

We all have our own laws, and one of mine is to try anything that looks like fun, and stop doing anything when it stops being fun—hang on, that’s two laws.

A second (or is that a third) is the two-thirds law. This law has a broad application. You can apply it to dieting by cutting your intake of food and drink by one third. And you can apply it to life.

If you’re happy two-thirds of the time, don’t change horse. It won’t get any better.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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