Diaper Don

November 28, 2020

Next Thursday, it will be a month since the US election. I’ve avoided anything but a passing mention of it until now, waiting patiently for the process to meander and weave its way to conclusion.

The sequence of events has been bizarrely predictable—I correctly forecast the ousting of the orange man, and won myself a bottle of tinto in doing so, but I didn’t predict the enthusiastic support for the incumbent displayed by almost seventy four million Americans.

In my forecast, I paid no attention to polls, but to clear evidence of incompetence, inhumanity, and influence trafficking. And since America really is a democracy, as it has convincingly demonstrated this past month, I can only confess to an emptiness inside—the vote was not the repressive adulation of Saddam Hussein or Mao Zedong, predicated on fear of arrest or worse at the hands of the military or the secret service.

In a nation with thirteen million plus coronavirus infections and two hundred sixty-five thousand deaths—so many of them avoidable—the support for the man who set the tone of defiance, taking a leaf from the actions of the King of Wuyue, was astonishing.

Yes, I know about the evangelicals, the tea party and libertarian lobbies, and those who think America’s cities will turn into battlefields of race.

But even so…

The America I know, or thought I knew, includes dozens, if not hundreds, of Trump voters who I’ve spoken with since 2015, and in those conversations I didn’t flag an undercurrent of sectarianism or xenophobia. I’m talking about North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Maine, Nevada, and yes, California and DC, those heartlands of Marxism-Leninism.

No citizen on this planet can remain indifferent to the election results—regardless of the reasons why Trump lost—now that everyone except the man himself accepts the outcome of the 2020 election, the general feeling in Europe and elsewhere is a sigh of relief.

Four more years of hallucinatory behavior would have been intolerable, and the positions of Trump, Bannon, and others about the European Union were instrumental in promoting Brexit and causing convulsions in several EU countries. From the far right in Germany to the Italian nationalists, not forgetting the mini-strong-men in Hungary and Poland, the US promotion of unilateralism was grist to their (un)collective mill.

European history over millennia is a tale of fragmentation and chaos. Territorial dispute followed by war followed by peace followed by war. To the European great powers (Germany, France, and the U.K.), this divided Europe made sense—pit countries against each other and their weakness makes you strong—until the Second World War.

In 1941, Carl Bosch, the co-inventor of the Haber-Bosch process for fixing atmospheric nitrogen, was on his death bed. Although he wasn’t Jewish (Fritz Haber was), he had a strong dislike, contempt even, for the Nazis in general and for Hitler in particular.

Before he died, he called in his son and told him:

To begin with, it will go well. France and perhaps even England will be occupied. But then he will bring the greatest calamity by attacking Russia. Even that will go well for a while. But then I see something horrific. Everything will be totally black. The sky is full of airplanes. They will destroy the whole of Germany, its cities, its factories, and also the IG.

IG was of course IG Farben, the chemical giant Bosch helped to build—it is infamously responsible for the manufacture of Zyklon B, the gas used in the Jewish holocaust.

Zyklon B manufactured at the IG Farben Auschwitz plant.

As the warring parties moved rapidly toward nuclear war in 1944 and 1945, there was every reason to fear the worst—after the war, it was clear to both generals and politicians that the scale and lethality of weapons far exceeded the restraint of humans in employing them.

And Bosch‘s predictions were right on the money—England only escaped invasion because America joined the war after Pearl Harbor.

For many reasons, not least peace and stability in Europe, we rejoice in bidding adieu to Trump. I am writing the last pages of The Hourglass, a novel in which a US president is forcibly evicted from the White House—although by all accounts this will not happen, since Trump himself revealed on Thanksgiving that he will leave if the electoral college returns Biden as the winner.

The actions of the White House, i.e. the orang-u-tan, because houses don’t have actions, have been pretty dreadful. And the consequences, such as the threats to the Georgia secretary of state and his family, are unacceptable.

This is the result of dialed-up ranting from Diaper Don.

The Thanksgiving press conference was the culmination of a set of initiatives that descended from perplexing to downright weird—it’s a really serious matter, but the props and actors have been downright hilarious.

From the accusations hurled from a garden center next to a porn shop to the hair dye streaming down Giuliani’s face, from court cases claiming fraud and then denying fraud in court to the Dominion machine fracas, it’s been comedy central.

The final act (so far, as Homer Simpson would say), was the insane presidential press conference on Thanksgiving.

Tiny desk, Tiny mind, Tiny caption.

I woke up to it on Friday morning—stream of consciousness stuff, including the trademark shouting at journalists and the usual folio of fallacies.

Everyone knows… anyone who believes that is… if you… you’re either…

A constellation of non sequitur arguments, repetition and emphasis as a rhetorical device—all the fun of the fair.

All this circus has taken on an aura of fun, particularly since we all know how the movie ends. The memes flowed thick and fast. My favorites? Here are the Wibaux Awards.

Bronze medal

I like to think that during Trump’s presidency, some hero in the White House has slowly swapped Trump’s desk for a slightly smaller one, day by day, so he wouldn’t notice, till four years later we get to this majestic picture

 Silver medal

I want to salute the dark, subtle genius, quietly at work in the White House staff, who managed to move Rudy Giuliani’s press conference to a run down garden centre, and to seat Donald Trump himself at that tiny, tiny desk. Be safe. The world needs your art.

Gold medal

Mini desk. Tiny hands. Small soul.

I don’t tweet (so far), but here’s my two cents, as I stand on the shoulders of giants.

John Gotti was the Dapper Don, this dude’s the Diaper Don.

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

Breadth

November 21, 2020

The Germans missed it. So did the Italians and Belgians.

The Italians made a half-baked attempt by invading Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) and establishing a mini-empire, while the Belgians couldn’t agree at all on a colonial policy, so Leopold II took it upon himself to establish a personal empire in the Congo—a truly bloodthirsty and vile affair that resulted in fifteen million deaths.

The Germans also missed the boat. Kaiser Wilhelm made a last-ditch effort to obtain an empire, at a time when the colonial world was already carved up between the English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese—together, these nations controlled all of Asia, Africa, and South America.

More mature readers of these pages will remember seeing this kind of map (dated 1910) on the wall of the classroom.

One hundred ten years ago, the world was a vastly different place. At the start of the XXth century, the combined population of Britain (40 million), France (39 million), Spain (19 million), Holland (5 million), and Portugal (5 million) was 108 million people—together, they ruled over empires with five times that number of people.

Kaiser Wilhelm, who was a couple of aces short of a full deck, desperately wanted empire—the Germans ended up with Tanganyika and Namibia, and they also secured the city of Qingdao, in NE China. The present-day consequence for the Middle Kingdom is TsingTao (which is just an alternate spelling for Qingdao, or Green Island) beer—China’s best beer, made in the classic pilsner tradition.

There’s quite a lot of evidence that Wilhelm was as gay as a Mexican handbag; in addition, he was obsessed with uniforms, dressing up as a British admiral whenever he ate plum pudding. The Kaiser loved pranks—a favorite was smacking men on the butt, often with the flat of his sword, an indignity suffered by the tsar of Bulgaria.

His sycophants dreamed up all kinds of stuff to entertain him, including my favorite—his military cabinet chief dressed up in a pink tutu, performed a dance for the emperor, and promptly died of a heart attack in front of him.

The most obvious reason why Germans and Italians missed the boat when it came to empire-building was their own internal (dis)organization—both territories were a fragmented arrangement of city-states and regional fiefdoms. Collectively, the German states were known since the time of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Empire, but by the late XVIIIth century, Voltaire noted it was neither holy, Roman, or an empire.

From 1862 onward, Bismarck used three wars to unify the country, ending with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870—the conflict with the French was a precursor of World War I. The fragmentation of Germany made it miss the empire-building stage other European nations embarked on, starting with the Portuguese in the XVth century.

As a result, Germany invested in other things—apart from coal, Prussia didn’t have a wealth of natural resources, so it turned to infrastructure, education, engineering, and science. These became national priorities, and led to key initiatives such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes. These institutes were independent from the state, and led by names such as Einstein, Haber, and Hahn—all of them Nobel Prize winners.

During the First World War, Haber, who was Jewish, became infamous for his work on poison gases—he was the first to use chlorine against Allied troops in the trenches.

But Fritz Haber’s real achievement was the development of a process to make ammonia from the air that we breathe—in particular from the eighty percent of that air that is composed of the inert gas nitrogen.

All these guys have two things in common—crazy mustaches and absolute genius. Marie Curie is the one without the facial hair. Other names include Nernst, Solvay, Lorentz, Poincaré, Planck, de Broglie, Rutherford, and Einstein. The meeting took place at the Hotel Métropole in Brussels, my personal favorite.

Prior to Haber’s success, which led to the huge expansion of the German company BASF, and the building of huge factories to apply the Haber-Bosch process, soil could only be fertilized with nitrogen from organic sources such as manure, and extracted from deposits of saltpeter, guano, and other materials.

As intensive agriculture developed to accompany the growth of world population through the second half of the XIXth century, so the land became progressively more barren as the nutrients within became depleted—the use of cover crops, rotation, and other traditional approaches just wasn’t sufficient to produce the volume of food required.

Wars were fought in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile over the nitrate mines, and places like the Atacama desert were the stuff of boom and bust economies, drawing engineers, prospectors, miners, carpetbaggers, saloons, and whorehouses in the best tradition of the Klondike.

German science, spurred on by the creation and national support of large research institutes, and their close connection to the industrial heartland of the new nation, is responsible for giving us the key for turning breath into bread.

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

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

November 14, 2020

Last Saturday, when I was literally smitten with election fever, my blog was viewed one hundred and fifty-six times. A hundred and six of those views targeted one thing only—the Trump ‘You’re Fired!’ cartoon.

Since then, everything has returned to normal and everyone knows there is no more titty (Two-Term Trump).

Last night, in the one-minute window I gave him as he meandered through the usual bollocks, even his orangeness had left him.

For me, Mr. Covid has come and gone, but when I see the stats and predictions for North America and Europe, my heart is heavy.

I was very lucky—a news report yesterday of a young woman in Utah that lost her mother and grandfather to covid is one of the most poignant stories I’ve read in a while.

We called my grandpa and I put him on speaker phone so he could talk to my mom. He said, ‘kiddo, I’m not doing good,’ and she said, ‘dad, I’m not either.’ And he said ‘(Tracy), I’m dying. And she said, ‘dad, I am too.’
Her grandfather’s last words to her mom were, “I’ll look for you in heaven.”

It is on behalf and in memory of such people that we must rejoice in the trouncing of this twat. As Obama quipped in a pre-election speech, the president is responsible for protecting America from all enemies, foreign, domestic, and microscopic.

My father learned to swim on a beach in Nazaré, or Nazareth—very biblical. We’re going back to the mid-1930s for this tale, and the vast majority of families in Portugal didn’t ever go to the beach, let alone know how to swim.

Before Baywatch made lifeguards trendy, beach safety in southern Europe was an extra earner for fishermen, often older and paunchy, who also made a few bucks teaching children to swim.

Until recently—more specifically until Garett McNamara put it on the map—no one had ever heard of Nazaré. It isn’t the safest place to teach a kid to swim.

The fisherman told my father, ‘O mar quer lá os medrosos, porque os valentes tem-os lá de certeza.’ The sea wants the cowards—the brave ones it already owns.

This is a good metaphor for covid, my friends. I speak with folks who tell me this is just another flu, and that the societal reaction is completely overblown—they’re the brave (or foolhardy) ones in my metaphor; let me tell you, although technically a coronavirus is a form of flu, this one is a bastard.

It comes at you like a blizzard, and uses all the sneaky tricks in the book to make you cough and splutter, and to help generate lesions it can use to fuck you over. Your body is so consumed fighting it that any trivial activity exhausts you in a minute or two.

It was very easy for me to understand how things can get out of control, which is why respect is the operative word.

Above all, when I see the models for the forthcoming months, even considering the progress with vaccination, it’s obvious we have a very dark winter ahead. When you add to that the financial hardship so many are already going through, the immediate future of humanity is bleak indeed.

The conclusion is clear and urgent—it is science that changed the face of the earth in the last hundred years—all the cellphones in the world would be worthless against a single antibiotic, the mapping of a viral genome, an arsenal of cancer therapies, or key advances in food production and safety.

It’s time to wise up, if we want society to flourish for a further hundred years—we’ve had our fun, now it’s time to put the orange man back into whatever box he came from, understand that conspiracies are the product of mean-spirited folks with very little between their ears, and that those who seek the truth represent the future of mankind.

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

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

November 7, 2020

I woke up this morning and checked the vote count. No change.

In an election, it is a basic premise that the following steps will occur: lies aplenty will be told during the campaign. Voters will be wooed—I did a quick check on that word on Urban Dictionary, and was stunned to find this example of usage:

Johnny wooed Jane with his erotic dancing and giant cock.

Come on people, wooed is a romantic term—whoever concocted this sentence has, if you excuse the pun, grabbed the wrong end of the stick.

Further down the page, the Nov. 3rd word of the day is you’re fired. When I did my review count just now for the last week, I saw a massive spike in views starting on Tuesday. Same pattern Wednesday and Thursday, double that on Friday.

What were folks after? A cartoon from an article I wrote on April 29th, 2017, called ‘You’re Fired‘—if I just posted pictures, my column would be far more successful!

Back to my steps.

When voting starts, you ensure it is both free and fair—to a European, even the notion of folks with guns hanging around polling stations is anathema—images of the Congo start to form in my mind.

After it’s all over, you wait for the count, and when that count is unquestionable, we’re done.

As in chess, it’s usual for the loser to tip the king when there’s nowhere left to run. The alternative is to keep on fighting until there’s only a black hole in the ground.

Elections are sacrosanct for a man like me who grew up in a country deprived of democratic rights. If I though for a moment the US elections were fraudulent, I would be the first to cry foul—nothing so far indicates that this is the case.

What I will not do is make any claims of victory or defeat until the officials responsible for collecting, counting, certifying, and publishing the results have done their duty—from all I’ve heard, from both Republican and Democrat officials, this duty has been scrupulously discharged so far.

By all accounts, this will be done soon. For those who have hoped for four years to see their candidate win, and I specifically address both sides, a few days is not a big ask. The really big ask is to reunite Americans—I know the US well, and I wish it well, and I believe that the fracture that exists has been manufactured—not by ordinary people but by leaders and pseudo-leaders, preachers and pseudo-preachers, media and pseudo-media, and malicious agents who certainly do not wish the US well.

Americans, love each other. You know how, you’ve just forgotten.

In the middle of the election fever, I developed a fever of my own—since Monday I’ve been laid up with covid. Like the vote counting, it’s slow and painful, but we’re getting through it—happy endings cost more.

If the orange man loses, I stand to win a rather yummy bottle of tinto—but right now I can’t taste it.

The good news? I caught the bug playing rock n’ roll, not in the supermarket queue. How cool is that!

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

Rat-a-tat-tat

November 1, 2020

Magellan suffered the death of a thousand cuts. Indigenous Filipinos still celebrate his death at the hands of Chief Lapu Lapu’s native fighters—some describe the captain-general cynically today as the Philippines’ first tourist. When I say a thousand cuts, I mean it—the Portuguese explorer was literally filleted. The Venetian Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled the voyage and worshiped Magellan, wrote:

Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, but he always stood firmly like a good knight, together with some others. Thus did we fight for more than one hour, refusing to retire farther. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.

Magellan believed that a few dozen men armed with medieval weapons could defeat a vastly greater number of natives armed with iron-tipped bamboo spears—he put this theory to the test on the beach at Mactan, as fifty Spaniards faced off three divisions totaling one thousand five hundred men—bad odds. The reason for the battle was simple—Lapu Lapu understandably refused to recognize Charles I of Spain (later the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) as his seigneur.

The killing of Fernão de Magalhães by the Mactan people.

After the great mariner fell, the natives proceeded to hack him to bits, displaying and hanging Magellan’s body parts for days after the battle.

The perfectly stupid death of the captain-general, who refused help from two potential native allies—Rajah Humabon from the island of Limasawa, and Chief Datu Zula, from Mactan itself—ended his great adventure.

To quote from the T-Shirt on a Russian girl in Bali last February, ‘bad choices make good stories.’

The merit of the circumnavigation voyage lies in the parts of the world that were hitherto undiscovered—the navigation around the tip of South America, and the Pacific crossing. The rest had all been done by the Portuguese. Vasco da Gama crossed the Atlantic in 1497 on his way to India and subsequent navigators pushed further east through the Indian Ocean, reaching Thailand and then Singapore in the early XVIth century—Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca in 1511.

In essence, three Portuguese captains closed the planetary circle, if you can accept that the stretch between the Philippines and Malacca is not a big ask. In any case, the Strait of Malacca is called that for a reason—it’s narrow (duh)—and any vessel sailing east in those waters has Sumatra visibly to starboard.

The width of the strait is about thirty nautical miles, or ten leagues, so the Portuguese sailors who discovered Malacca by definition also discovered the largest island in Indonesia.

Once Sumatra is at hand, simple line of sight navigation takes you to Java and Bali, and onward to the eastern end of the Indonesian chain. In Bahasa, the word for east is timur, so the former Portuguese colony of East Timor is actually called east-east.

In 1514, a man named Rui de Brito Patalim, captain of Malacca, wrote to Afonso de Albuquerque, governor-general of the Indies, to describe the discovery of East Timor—the letter was passed on to King Manuel I of Portugal.

Digital copy of the 1514 letter written by Rui Patalim announcing the discovery of East Timor.

Given that (a) Magellan reached the Philippines in 1521; (b) the Portuguese had sailed west across Asia to the eastern tip of Indonesia by 1514; and (c) Mactan is at longitude 123.96 E but East Timor is at 125.73 E, i.e. further east; the case is unequivocally made for the Portuguese circumnavigation of the globe—quod erat demonstrandum. QED.

I had a math teacher when I was seventeen who translated QED as ‘quite easily done’. She used to announce this regularly in a broad Yorkshire accent, which caused much mirth. Aye.

What is not QED is the Pacific crossing in three naus, or carracks, even though Magellan profited from the southeast trades, just as his Portuguese brethren did when sailing back from the Cape of Good Hope and riding the Benguela current up to the equator.

Pacific it might have been, after the thirty-eight day crossing of the Strait of Magellan, which the man himself had named Estreito (or Estrecho in Spanish, if I must) de Todos (l)os Santos.

As we all know, Magalhães christened the Pacific Ocean, but due to minor geographic misconceptions dating back to Ptolemy, Pierre d’Ailly, and more recently Columbus, the Portuguese explorer thought the crossing would take a couple weeks, perhaps less—it took ninety-nine days, as celebrated in the Hendrix tune.

As per the standard playbook, the expedition ran out of food pretty early on, even though they had stocked up on penguin meat in South America. Following tradition, the crew ate anything they could get their hands on, including the leather off shoes and tools.

Rats were prized. Caught, sold, and eaten. Not only were rats nutritious, but by this time scurvy was widespread among the sailors—like dogs, rats can synthesize vitamin C, which is why you don’t give your pooch a fruit smoothie and those meeces always have a glint in their eye.

Rat vitamin C is just as yummy as the one in lemonade, and it went a little way to reduce the scourge of scurvy—by then, rats were a bit thin on the ground.

Magellan and his officers didn’t get scurvy—they thought they were made of sterner stuff than the common sailors, and therefore remained in good health, presumably without nibbling Jerry.

The reason is much simpler, but no one ever made the link.

Every morning, the officers were given a ration of quince—a little something the Portuguese call marmelada.

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

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.


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