Old World

December 8, 2019

We live in an old world. In 1800, the average life expectancy at birth was twenty-nine years.

The global average now is 72.2 years, well over double that number. But the power of averages is limited—no one ever got rich on an average wage, and the disenfranchised take little comfort from it.

Statistics have in some ways displaced thought, which is why they should be taken with a large pinch of salt. I’m not speaking about errors in calculation—though they occur, both through accident and deliberation—my concern is about what statistics hide.

Europe has the oldest people in the world—that’s a statistic—we’re not talking about the oldest person, but the median age.

An infographic from visualcapitalist.com (catchy name), shows human age distribution worldwide.

Monaco, full of elderly tax dodgers, has the highest median value, but overall, Europe is double Africa.

The European situation attests to low birth rates, excellent health care, and low immigration—despite what populist movements would have us believe. The US is a younger nation, but much of that is because of the increasing Hispanic population, currently fifty-two million people, or 16.7% of the country.

Statistics obscure (or synthesize, for all you optimists) data in both time and space—a spatial breakdown indicates that the four states which border Mexico all have 30% or more Latinos, double the national average.

Ageing populations have consequences, the first of which is that humans enjoy a longer life (duh)—society is better able to take care of its own.

That change in longevity came about pretty quickly—nothing happened for four hundred years, and suddenly… badaboom!

The way we were… Changes in life expectancy are a product of three generations: the greatest, the silent, and the baby boomers (graph adapted from ourworldindata.org)

The most remarkable change was for the baby boomers, because there was a rapid increase in both population and life expectancy. In the West, baby boomers are privileged when compared to the generations that followed them—their per capita GDP increased significantly, many people were able to buy homes, and the increase in life expectancy was not rewarded by an increase in retirement age.

The downsides were also interesting. A batch of new diseases became the worry of the late century, including breast and prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s, and chronic vascular conditions. These became health challenges as the life-threatening problems of the past were conquered through antibiotics, vaccination, early diagnosis, and cutting-edge surgery, if you excuse the pun.

Care for the elderly became a worry, then a business—today it’s spawned a world of euphemisms, from assisted living, to retirement, senior, and (God forbid) old people’s homes.

I visited one last week, a little wary of what I might find. I was told that old people, like children, need tenderness and love—we all do, of course, but I can relate—at the more delicate stages of life, such things are all-important. If you live alone after a certain age, surrounded by memories of those you love—many of whom you’ve parted with—you may well be better off in company.

European cities are full of elderly people whose life is four walls and endless days—folks with stories to tell, and most importantly, lessons to teach. Western business discards its elderly with glee, and governments are hard-pressed to address the social consequences.

Many countries now place the retirement age in a bracket between ages 65 and 67, but the systems are collapsing anyhow. Projected increases to the age of seventy-five won’t solve the funding deficit—but that’s a prospect forty year olds face now.

As I browsed for data, a targeted ad came up for Ukranian women. The German site advertises im osten geht die lieber auf, which Google translates as ‘in the east, they prefer to go.’

Well, that certainly put the cat among the pigeons! I have now further understood that…

If you are looking for a fulfilling relationship with a woman from Eastern Europe, you are in the right place. In addition to Russian women, Ukrainian women account for a large proportion of the ladies registered with us. Like other Eastern European women, women from Ukraine differ in many ways from Western European women and exert an incredible fascination for men through their special charm.

I am still bemused by where, how, when, or even why ‘they prefer to go’, and am now further intrigued by ‘their special charm.’ Gruβ Gott, the stuff you come across when you’re writing a God-fearin’ blog on a Sunday morning!

The issue of retirement age is predicated on the support base of the pension system—it was calculated on a static basis for a moveable reference frame, which would never work. Such models must include predictions of changes in employment, wage structure, economic growth, globalization, immigration, birth rate, mortality, and lifespan.

Is your job at risk? If so, chances are you’ll ‘retire’ much earlier than planned.

At least half of the variables in the model above (all the economic ones) are unpredictable at the timescales of interest—generational. The risk profile of many job categories (so many others are already gone) makes the analysis all the more uncertain—the notion that policy-makers and politicians can accurately balance budgets predicated on changes to retirement age, fine-tuned to two decimal points, beggars belief.

From the point of view of societal sustainability, retirement and unemployment are the same thing. This discussion is at the core of my new book, ‘The Hourglass’, due out in 2020.

But the lesson I learned on my visit was simple—to take care of the elderly and the infirm, all you need is love.

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

Asian Onions

December 1, 2019

One hundred Indian rupees is worth $1.39 this morning. That’ll buy you one kilogram—just over two pounds—of onions in Mumbai.

In the US, inflation hovers around two percent, and in the EU, the numbers are about the same. In the developed world, inflation is a quiet ogre, but as soon as it stirs, trouble brews.

High values can throw an economy into a tailspin—money becomes worthless, and society reverts to barter.

When you need a log scale to count your money, the giant’s on the rampage.

But Zimbabwe is an extreme example—in Venezuela, the inflation over the past three years was only fifty-three million percent. Other countries have roared into the hundreds and stayed there for decades—Argentina averaged 196% per year since the Second World War.

High inflation over long periods creates a systemic parallel economy where nations live in a nebulous region of black market currency trades. The increase in money supply to meet spending requirements drives up prices, at which point governments print more money, and a stable economic cycle plunges into chaos.

Chaos theory would merit a lifetime of articles, but the key principle is that small changes can cause huge effects—the non-linearity fascinates me, since it can be the cause of incredible disasters.

The effect of hyperinflation is amazing in terms of numbers theory, but in the real world the shifts in state, as the system moves from a stable limit cycle to chaos, can only be qualitatively predicted—by that I mean that you can envisage the types of changes, but you don’t know when, where, or how they’ll happen.

In economic terms, a worthless currency leads to a collapse in imports, since foreign goods can no longer be paid for. In the transportation sector, that means less vehicles—no new ones, no spare parts. Distribution of essential goods stops—food, water, medicine…

People lose their jobs, or are paid a fraction of what they need to survive—think Venezuela right now. And I do mean think. Please read the next paragraph, then just close your eyes for a moment and imagine what it would be like if you were in that position today.

President Maduro (the name means nutcase in Portuguese) increased the minimum wage by 275% in October 2019. Last month, Venezuelans began earning a base of one hundred fifty thousand bolivars, or eight bucks. That buys them nine pounds of meat, or five ounces a day—one hundred forty grams, if you prefer. To make it easy, a gram of meat daily per thousand bolivars per month.

Job losses lead to hunger, hunger leads to strife, both lead to exodus, and ultimately to war for those that remain. War leads to death. Welcome to chaos.

It’s hard to say exactly when the butterfly beat its wings, and just how fast or slow it really was, but the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was established only twenty years ago by Hugo Chávez—in a country with the largest oil reserves in the world, a mere three hundred billion barrels, or half the volume of Lake Geneva.

Onions in the market in Mumbai in October 2019 (courtesy of Bloomberg). India is importing from Egypt, and even from the Netherlands.

Which brings me to onions. India, and Southeast Asia in general, use the onion as a universal staple. The gastronomic delights of English food made me fall in love with curry at an early age, and a sure way to learn about a country is to explore its cuisine—yup, eat its food.

To understand a country’s regional dishes is to dive into its diversity—some nations have it, be they large or small—China, India, Italy, Portugal—and some, like the UK, do not.

The Indian onion is a fascinating, and highly divisive, economic indicator. At present, with inflation running at 4.6% year-on-year, vegetable prices are up twenty-six percent.

National politicians are plagued by onions—in the west and north of India, high onion prices are good news, because the staple vegetable is grown mainly in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh. However, in other parts of the huge nation, an increase in onion prices, especially on the present scale, is  extremely unwelcome—hapless Indian politicians are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

India is a rare beast among huge nations—the largest democracy in the world. In 2019, there were nine hundred million eligible voters, and sixty-seven percent of those turned out to vote. Narendra Modi won, but the economy is hounding him—with the exception of brahmins and pure vegetarians, those voters are onion enthusiasts.

A combination of drought and monsoon rains hit the onion harvest hard, tripling prices, and halving consumption. All Indian onion exports to neighboring countries are currently banned, causing general onion angst in the region, and the government has cracked down on onion smugglers.

I don’t suppose truckloads of smuggled onions will be impossible to detect—I can picture the highly trained Indian frontier K-9 brigade pawing their way through a load, weeping on the job and barking in protest, as their incredibly sensitive noses are violated by the pungent prevaricators.

The Indian government’s export ban caused a seven hundred percent price jump in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Nepalese consumers considering alternatives apparently view Chinese onions as ‘big and flashy’, which doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, so (and after suffering through articles talking ad nauseam about ‘the onion crunch’ etc etc) I can only conclude that it’ll all end in tears.

India is also busy importing onions—the universal base for a curry, whether you’re talking about a South Indian Avial—their website motto is ‘eating plants till we photosynthesize‘ so perhaps a spot of biology revision is in order—or a Mughal Rogan Josh, which is a case of invasive gastronomy from Iran. In passing, another humble contribution to Indian cuisine was the chili, supplied by the bearded invaders of The India Road, having first been brought to Europe by Columbus.

In this wonderful modern world of onion commerce, why not the UK? is there yet another great trade deal in the making?

Hold on to your onions, Boris, there’s hope for you yet.

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

South by Southwest

November 27, 2019

Siegburg is a small town next to another small town—Bonn. After the Second World War, Bonn became the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, since the allies would not accept Berlin as an option—even though the DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, kept Berlin.

In the 1960s, John Le Carré wrote a book called ‘A Small Town in Germany’ about Brit spooks entwined with the government of the FRG, and the resurgence of Nazism.

There’s nothing remarkable about Siegburg, except the fact that it no longer has a Jewish community—the synagogue was burned down on Kristallnacht in 1938. A picture in a local magazine shows a Jewish school, and the fate of the rabbi in 1942—deportation to the camps.

A few stepping stones mark the deportation to labour camps of the last Jews in Siegburg.

It doesn’t take long to reach Belgium, via the highway system that Adolf Hitler built during his reconstruction of Germany. The road toward Liège, and then Brussels, would be the one taken by the Nazis in the early stages of their invasion of Western Europe.

Before you know it, you’re past Charleroi—Belgium whips by in an Augenblick, and then you’re in France. As you roll southwest into the Loire valley, your mind travels back from decades to centuries—now we’re talking about the Thirty Years War, the Hundred Years War—long periods of strife, featuring names like Charles VI, Henry V, and Joan of Arc.

It is the time of the Plantagenets and the House of Valois, of complete and utter savagery, as England and France fought for territorial dominance.

The monumental cities of Orleans and Tours tell their tales in stone. The street leading to the cathedral celebrates Joan of Arc’s reception in Tours by the French king in 1429, after liberating Orleans from the English.

Tours cathedral, with the sun rising to the east.

The cathedral is deserted on an early Sunday morning, but it’s open, and no one is asking for money. The tombs inside attest to the violence that marks European history, which makes it all the more remarkable that these days anyone can travel the length and breadth of the continent without even a passport—and that all of it happened in my lifetime—that’s an ideal worth fighting for.

As you pass the Pyrenees and wind southwest into Iberia, history jumps a few centuries forward—now it’s the old Spanish capital of Valladolid, with the river Duero slowly rolling by. Just down the road is the eagle’s nest of Tordesillas, and the tales of The India Road.

It is within touching distance of Tordesillas that Javier Guacil, one of the characters in The Hourglass, has an accident which changes his whole life and joins him with a group destined to change the world—the pressure is on to get this book done before the US presidential elections go into madhouse mode.

A little further down the E-80, the town of Simancas, known to the Romans as Setimanca—where the American researcher Alicia Gould died on the steps of the archive, in her unending quest to unravel the mysteries of Colón—brings back my book Clear Eyes, and for half an hour I dream of the Indies, as I whip by the endless stream of trucks.

The archive’s entrance bears a plaque with the inscription below, and the building closes every year on July 25th in her memory.

EL DIA 25 DE JULI0 DE 1953.

The endless plains of Castilla y León finally give way, as the Duero becomes the Douro and the border of yet another nation is crossed. The temperature is no longer around freezing point, as the great ocean draws closer. It’s raining hard, as the winter storms roll in from the Atlantic, but the biting edge of the wind has disappeared.

As you head southwest, the food gets better and better.

And as for the wine, well that’s a spiritual journey of alliterative ascension as you go from Teutonic to Touraine, and finally from Tempranillo to Tinta Roriz.

Tempranillo gets its name from the Spanish word temprano, because the grape ripens a few weeks before the others. And Roriz is exactly the same grape, it just lives in a different country.

Wine, like Europe, has no borders.

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

Private Nyet

November 17, 2019

Netflix recently carried a docudrama called ‘The Laundromat.’ It was billed as an expose of the Panama Papers, so I’ll give it a spin, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Even though the movie was directed by Steven Soderbergh, I was disappointed—as so often happens with TV, the book is much better, but no one reads anymore—I was on four airplanes last week, and I checked—no one reads.

The book is called ‘Secrecy World’, and the guy who wrote it has won a couple of Pulitzer prizes—it shows. The story of Jürgen Mossack and Rámon Fonseca is fairly well-known, not least because between them they set up over two hundred thousand shell companies, servicing clients from all over the world.

Their clients had one thing in common—a keen interest in hiding their money—some due to ill-gotten gains, but many simply to avoid taxation.

Rodents not only access your food storage, but many possess their own larder.

Hiding money to avoid parting with any or all of it is part of human nature—it’s a reflection of our biology; many animals hide their food from others—that’s why dogs bury bones, but the canine banking system isn’t particularly sophisticated when compared to ants or rodents, who use underground galleries, scatter hoarding, and other tricks.

Behavioral traits in primates inevitably led to human socioeconomic systems, and to societal development of rules and regulations—many of these, of course, are a way of taming our animal instincts.

Animals kill each other, and will readily steal food or sex—humans, but many other vertebrates also, found ways to develop societies that allowed peaceful cohabitation—this meant controlling our basic instincts.

But deep down, many of us revert to our unpleasant origins—if we can hurt, we hurt, if we can take, we take—and those in positions of power, who are better placed to take advantage of the system with impunity, abuse the system. It’s worth remembering that impunity means without punishment.

Yes, John Acton had it right: “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The full quote is wonderfully prescient:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

A few months ago, Reuters provided an illustration of this abuse, courtesy of Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil giant.

Rosnest private jet flights to holiday paradises, analyzed by Reuters. As usual, social media is the big giveaway.

By comparing the movements of Rosneft corporate jets with posts on Instagram, Facebook, and other havens of self-indulgence, the news agency was able to piece together a remarkable collection of excursions by the oil major’s top brass.

The company would not comment when confronted with the fifteen Maldives trips, and double that to a range of European destinations, so the operative word is ‘allegedly’. Nevertheless, Reuters strongly suggest that CEO Igor Sechin, or relatives and friends, happened to be at the same vacation spots that the jets visited.

In all, the news agency tracked two hundred ninety corporate flights between 2015 and 2019—ninety-six of them occurred on long weekends or Russian public holidays.

Sechin is close to Putin, who himself features prominently in the Panama Papers.

The most interesting fact I got from the book was the name of one of the most secretive fiscal paradises in the world. Whereas most offshore centers are small islands that have little else to offer apart from tourism, this place stands head and shoulders above the rest.

It’s called the United States of America.

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


November 10, 2019

In November 1987, a schmaltzy English band with the very eighties name ‘The Housemartins’ came up with a tune called ‘Build’. Two years later—to the month—the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

You can get bits of the wall on eBay, where you can also buy a French commemorative Berlin Wall 2 € coin for double that price—the sort of inflation that would fire the juices of European Central Bankers.

Just as the First World War was ‘the war to end all wars’, so the Berlin Wall was the wall to end all walls. Or so we thought…

It only took five years for another symbolic wall to be built—this one separating Israelis and Palestinians, and since then the wall business has been, if you’ll allow me, going great guns.

The tragicomedy of the Mexican wall continues—yet another dumb idea in the litany of stupidities that characterize American leadership since January 2017—and across the free world, wall-building continues with enthusiasm.

The orange man is fond of grass roots analogies—concrete, coal, barbed wire, and Muslims who die like dogs—but the real walls out there are a metaphor.

A couple of years ago I visited someone in North Carolina—my host had a dog, and I summoned the hound, who was about thirty feet away. The animal was tempted and wagged his tail enthusiastically. It ran eagerly to about ten feet of me, then stopped short.

I understood that the dog sported some kind of electronic collar, and crossing an invisible divide in the garden would deliver an electric shock—the dog clearly understood it too.

No, the real walls are electronic, digital, observational—the ones you can’t tunnel under, climb over, or walk around.

If you’re in doubt, try to use WhatsApp in the Middle Kingdom, or access Google from Shanghai—they call it the Great Firewall of China for a reason.

With perfect timing for the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall—November 9th 2019—I received a copy of the report ‘The Business of Building Walls’ prepared by the Transnational Institute (TNI), which is the international arm of the Washington, D.C., based Institute for Policy Studies.

I suppose it stems from a lifetime of academic work, but whenever I read a document, my first jump is to the acknowledgments and references. The first tell me where the money came from, and who supported the work, and the second provide me with confidence, or lack of it, on the content I’m about to read.

In TNI’s case, I took the trouble to learn about the organization’s history—there are things I like and others I don’t. But overall, I didn’t get the feeling I was dealing with a product from an organization funded by Russia, MBS, or a friend of Rush Limbaugh—there, I’ve offended everyone.

As you suspected, the business of building walls is big business indeed. The global market is estimated at about eighteen billion dollars per year, with a growth forecast of at least 8% APR.

In Europe, we’re talking about one billion dollars spent in the last thirty years—since the other wall fell. That doesn’t seem huge, but the point is the direction of travel—the European External Borders Fund for the period 2007-2013 was about two billion dollars, and the current budget (Internal Security Fund – Borders Fund) is closer to three billion—Fortress Europe is worried.

The report highlights three European companies that have done themselves proud in this burgeoning market.

A Frenchman, an Italian, and a German walk into a bar… it sounds like the start of a bad joke, but we’re talking about Thales, Leonardo, and Airbus—big business is no joke.

Unless you’re in the millieu, you probably haven’t heard of the first two. Thales pops up occasionally when you’re buying something on the net—they do security certificates, and IT arcana in general. They also recently bought Gemalto, a Dutch computer security firm. But make no mistake, Thales is big, as in twenty billion dollars, and Leonardo is about one third of that size.

Leonardo brings to the table—or to the border, in this case—drones, satellite technology, and a number of other building materials essential for today’s modern wall. You can see a snippet here.

Finally, Airbus is billed in the TNI report as an arms company—I’m flying on one of their planes first thing tomorrow, and naive old moi, I never thought of them as any such thing, but Mr. Google tells a different tale.

These companies are a part of the wall-building military-industrial complex, but they are certainly not the only ones. TNI lists a host corporations that sell razor wire, visa verification, and surveillance of people—inevitably, as in the post-911 US, this will include citizens.

Fascinating reading, with the caveats I mentioned earlier—for instance, at the forefront of OCEANS 2020 is Leonardo, not Airbus. Lobbying plays a big part in all this—since 2014, the three companies I focused on have held 226 registered lobbying meetings with the European Commission.

In that sense, nothing changes—but for the technology, everything changes, and it changes fast.

Wall-building nowadays has morphed like the life of Housemartins’ former bassist Norman Quentin Cook—having already changed his name from the equally boring Quentin Leo Cook—in 1996, he took a quantum leap and reinvented himself as Fatboy Slim.

Right here. Right Now.

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

Dead And Brexit

November 3, 2019

I got a late start this weekend because of the rugby world cup—I have a soft spot for the Boks, partly due to the tales of good friends who returned to Europe from South Africa, (what was then) Rhodesia, and the ex-Portuguese colonies.

When excitable young teens—and we were all pretty crazy—tell stories to each other, it’s as if you’re there yourself—I knew Jo’burg, braai, and rugby intimately from pictures in my mind.

In 2001, I was down in the Cape with another group—one night, a bunch of us were this close to getting killed by a freight train on the road to Saldanha Bay.

Afterward, I drank a bottle of Pinotage from head to toe, marveling at the fact I was still alive. I fell asleep with the TV on and woke at 4 a.m., bleary-eyed. I kept looking at the news channel—all I could think was, I should be on there!

Seeing the informal housing—a term I first heard from a white South African friend—of the Cape Flats, Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, and the big five running wild, brings home the pain and beauty of the rainbow nation.

To watch the Springboks win the world cup this morning brought tears to my eyes. It’s now on a twelve-year cycle: 1995, 2007, and 2019—how very Chinese of them. South Africa clearly lives its best life in the Year of the Pig—and although 2019 is an earth pig, for the South Africans, it’s clearly a golden pig.

I’ve been observing the antics of the UK general election this week, and in the midst of the mayhem, once in a while the arrogant judgement of the inevitable English rugby win would drop in—unlike Brexit, this was an outcome that was never in doubt—a one hundred pound bet on Friday would have made you three grand.

And since I’m linking (sorry) Murdoch’s organ, to paraphrase Private Eye magazine, I must draw your attention to Farage’s campaign statement Friday—very little was covered by the networks, which fuels Trumpian deep state conspiracy theories—but The Sun, in its infinite Merdochian wisdom, put it on YouTube.

Farage is dangerous—he’s a combination of Trump’s populism and Bannon’s intellect—but he talks better than Trump and dresses better than Bannon. To be fair, neither is a big ask.

Nature’s revenge, according to Private Eye, after Boris claimed ‘I’d rather be dead in a ditch’ than stay in the EU past Halloween.

Now that England’s disillusionment with their national side is complete, we’re left only with the fray. And what a fray it will be.

The whole Farage thesis (and I suffered through it all) is predicated on one idea: a Leave Alliance, where the Brexit Party grabs votes in the north of England—deep Brexit country—and doesn’t split the conservative vote in the home counties—the kicker? Ditch the deal and go for no deal.

Boris is squirming harder than the English forwards, while the Fleet Street press goes nuts about Corbyn, the EU, and the NHS.

Interviewed on Farage’s LBC talk show, the orange man claimed he had no interest in the NHS—just trade. Ordinary Brits scratch their heads at this gem, wondering if the man doesn’t understand the link between the two.

As we approach the 12th of December, all sorts of interesting possibilities arise—mostly in the sense of the Chinese proverb.

The Tories are unlikely to get a majority, despite the polls. This is particularly because the Labour Brexit voters in the north of England will not hold their nose for Boris. They’ll happily vote Nigel, in the same way the US base voted Trump—ordinary folk placing their trust in silver-spoon tycoons with whom they share nothing but delusions.

A post-ballot deal between Boris and Nigel will mean a no-deal Brexit and a compound fracture for the Tories—interesting times ahead there.

Voters from the middle class (Tony Tories?) who might swing left for a Blair clone will not hold their noses and vote Corbyn. With promises such as a lower cap for death duties (I know, inheritance tax is so much more millennial…) and a ban on public (i.e. private) schools, this is a man who has shot himself in both feet. Brexit ambiguity and the promise of a second referendum on yet another deal—which Labour will putatively negotiate but won’t say it supports—makes for a narrative that confuses the party, never mind the people.

Enter the Lib-Dems, who have a clear statement on Brexit. If they win, they’ll ditch it. This is admirable in its clarity, but there are two problems—the first-past-the-post electoral system doesn’t work in their favor, and folks will be skeptical of a one-idea party: you can’t mandate a government for four years under the concept of staying in.

There’s also another detail—the Lib-Dem leader is a Scot, and the English electorate won’t be thrilled with that, although, goodness gracious, no one would ever say so, m’ dear!

So the final permutation is a post-electoral Labour & Lib-Dem deal—which is possible, with the Lib-Dems holding their noses as they dilute their remain pledge and go all out for a second referendum that includes the option of a renegotiated deal.

But that assumes the same Labour MPs who have sat on the fence on Brexit for three years will suddenly become fans of games with frontiers—it’s a knockout!

And just to spice it up, the orang-u-tan arrives in Britain for a NATO summit on December 3rd, a week before the hustings—I hope Boris has a pair of brown underpants at hand.

On that note, I leave you with a prediction and a solution.

The prediction is obvious: we have all the conditions for a hung parliament, and the great Brexit soap continues ad nauseam.

My solution is a shift to Hong-Kong Sevens.

Labour and Tories: guys, sit this one out and enjoy Christmas. Let the Lib-Dems and the Brexit Party come to blows, with the SNP and DUP thrown in the mix.

That lot can settle Brexit in a heartbeat, since their positions are both crystal clear and poles apart.

Before you can say bye-bye Barnier the business will be done—then you can all get back to the full fifteen-a-side game.

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



October 26, 2019

Last Saturday night, I got touted.

I’m using the verb in an unusual way—by convention, when something is touted, it is promoted or claimed.

But when I say I got touted, I wasn’t in any way the object of promotion. On the contrary, I got screwed.

Back in the day (and they’re still around) a tout might approach you at the subway exit, or in a park next to a sports stadium or a concert venue. The show may vary, but the game is unvarying.

I grew up with analog touts—always guys, always shady, slightly more presentable than a heroin dealer, slightly less pushy than a mugger.

The typical tout would operate on behalf of someone else, the toutmeister—the guy with the capital to purchase a stock of tickets in the first place, and to take the financial risk—just as with drugs, and so many other businesses: risk it, buy it, flog it.

But where a human tout might nag and cajole you, there were only three ways he could scam you—falsely persuade you that box office tickets were sold out, hike the price, or sell you a fake ticket.

That last one is a little tricky—to the extent I will only find out in December if the tickets I was touted with are genuine—there may be a Touted Part II.

Many years ago, an English guy I knew was driving along in southern Portugal. A traffic policeman flagged him down and he pulled to a stop by the side of the road, by a row of olive trees. The day was hot, and the cop waited until the dust settled on the verge; then he walked up to the Ford and saluted.

Documentos,” he said.

The Englishman only knew two words in Portuguese. Cerveja—beer, and obrigado—thank-you. In those days, Portuguese people got by in French better than in English, but the two words, together with a little mime, usually did the trick.

Documentos,” the cop repeated.

The man handed him the car registration. The policeman wanted ID.

The Englishman reached into his wallet and produced a single quarter-sheet of paper. It was official-looking, contained his name in an underline at the top, and a list of items below that, together with some numbers and a signature.

The traffic cop scrutinized the British driving license—he had never seen one before. He examined the document again, unable to fathom what any of the words or numbers meant.

Boa tarde.” Satisfied, he handed back the documents, saluted, and headed to his vehicle.

The Englishman put the paper back in his wallet and drove off, grinning. This would make quite a story in the pub. The quarter-sheet was a laundry bill from a Hertford dry cleaner, made out to Mr. Jack Ramsey. Itemized were one pair of trousers and three shirts.

Fake tickets are not easy to spot.

Last week they finally got me—I was touted online. I paid eight times more for a rock concert ticket than the face value printed on it. No redress, no way back.

From time to time, we all find ourselves in situations where we spend more than we planned—I have two cures for that: don’t make the same mistake twice, and work a little harder the following week.

So, I can’t get my money back. But I have a weapon. The pen is mightier than the scam, so let’s get into the weeds.

I was touted by Viagogo, one of a number of sites that specialize in the secondary market for tickets. The company is legally based in Geneva, and therefore neatly dodges EU regulation on consumer protection.

When I looked into Viagogo, I found out that it has been publicly condemned by the UK’s digital minister, Margot James—I didn’t realize Britain had such a thing, and she’s also notched up points in my book by resigning from government on July 18th, 2019, to vote against the prorogation of parliament.

I really didn’t want to go down the hellhole of Brexit today—compared to that, a tout is but a fart: smells foul but disappears quickly—but Margot further warmed my heart by having the whip removed on September 3rd, in what will become known as the Boris Brexitovsky purges.

So, Ms. James told BBC Radio 5 Live that she warned consumers away from ticket reselling platform Viagogo, branding it “the worst”. Apparently, the company had already fallen foul (there’s that smell again) of the British Advertising Standards Authority for imposing “hidden” fees on customers.

Ed Sheeran has also condemned the Viagogo touts—didn’t cheer me up much, but at least I’m in good company.

Digital touts, or more accurately, internet touts, have provide a major disservice to music—and that, friends, is a capital crime in my book.

You may be familiar with the concept of bots. Just as you can read me on your tablet or cellphone, so a bot can access this page, traverse all other links, and collect a history of my mentions of the words ‘sex’, or ‘China’, or ‘orang-u-tan’.

Bots are what allows Google to index pages and process them to help you find stuff. They’re also responsible for the annoying Captcha stuff, and the occasional requirement to click on images with buses—Boris could do that for a living rather than managing a dog’s breakfast.

The secondary market sites got into the bot business—they sent out bots to buy online tickets to concerts, sports events, you name it. Digital touts therefore sucked out the primary market—by the time you heard about a concert, the primary market was empty.

Musicians want fans, and fans want affordable music. This sets door prices, until robotouts screw the whole system—at that point, ticket prices skyrocket, and the audience shifts towards the wealthy—as Lennon famously said in the Albert Hall, ‘the rest of you, just rattle your jewellery.’

Viagogo traps you using four tricks. First, they have a bar at the top of the page where you select the number of tickets you want. My magic number was 2, and I was shown a price. In very small print, and a discreet color, the column header says:


No matter what number you select—customers in good faith will choose the one they need—the price never changes. Even when they break down net costs and tax, they only ever use the single ticket price, with e.g. 4X slyly inserted off to the side.

Second, as soon as you make a choice, a timer window appears, counting down the seconds to pressure you to complete your purchase.

Third: never, throughout the process, are you ever told the face value of the ticket you are buying.

Finally, the total amount you’re spending is not shown at checkout, only in a post-purchase confirmation screen, aka a gotcha screen.

Touts in the UK, Scalpers in the US. Scum of the earth anywhere.

After I fell for this scam, I wondered if I was the only fool in the market… sadly, no. An excellent article published this August in Wired tells us:

Favourite band coming to town? Good luck getting tickets. The touts have already snapped them up – and they’re now listed for ten-times the face value on Viagogo and StubHub. But digital touts may be facing extinction. New technology is making mass buying more difficult, governments are closing in on rogue resellers and even Ticketmaster is shutting down its own resale sites. The only problem? Getting hold of on-demand tickets is unlikely to get any cheaper or easier.

I found out Viagogo has company. Like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, there’s Viagogo, Stubhub, Seatwave, and Get Me In. Four unpolishable turds.

Notice how often I’ve written Viagogo’s name—ordinarily I wouldn’t do this, but I want Viagogo imprinted in your mind, and I want to increase the visibility of this article when some poor sucker searches for Viagogo on the net—I just refuse to link them.

Companies like Viagogo are a collective danger—they disenfranchise the less well-off, make culture less accessible and more elitist, and help widen the gap between the appointed and the disappointed.

These are the recipes for the politics of extremes that has invaded Western society, only three generations after World War II.

As for Viagogo? To use a popular, if unfulfilled, promise, may they die in a ditch.

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


October 20, 2019

The word means ‘health’, a commodity that you trade off as you go through life, along with love and money.

But when you prefix it with Twoje, it becomes ‘your health’ or ‘cheers’.

In Poland, that usually means vodka—which is very good, perhaps the best you can get, including the famed bison grass variety—it was pleasure to do homework for this topic (the Poles don’t believe in trivia like indefinite articles or personal pronouns).

Nevertheless, there’s a certain irony in wishing people ‘good health’ by plying them with cripplingly strong alcohol—a bit like telling them ‘here’s to a stand-up guy’ prior to shooting them in the head.

I took the autobahn from Berlin to Szczecin—it should have been an easy ride, but the German side is a snarl of roadworks—I spent a couple of hours farting about on the freeway, rather than having a gute fahrt.

In Germany, even the cars have angst.

The change in living standards is obvious when you cross the border—in the housing, the cars, the dress… I stopped off for gas, paid in zloty since we’re out of the euro area, and my first Polish contact in country was very encouraging—the language is incomprehensible, and sports a particularly insane range of accents, including an ‘L’ which has been stabbed in the gut and is pronounced ‘E’—I imagined that a sharp blow to the Polish abdomen may have originated that particular phoneme.

The gas attendant smiled, spoke to me in English, and had none of the arrogance you encounter in Germany. I was also struck by the difference between Poles and the Hungarians during my trip in 2016—both nations have a history of suffering, but the Poles are optimistic and funny, where Hungary is dour and grim.

I checked into the hotel, considered dinner options and turned on the TV.

My research was waylaid by a cartoon of Scooby Doo in Polish, which cracked me up, and set the tone for the evening.

No one replied when I called to book a table for dinner, so I strolled over to the place on the off chance.

Every woman in Poland is convinced that dyed blond hair is a decisive advantage in life—the two young ladies at the restaurant were clearly happy about practicing their English. I explained about the reservation, and one of them said they were too busy to answer the phone—almost as funny as Scooby—and they found me a table right away.

Szczecin—I’m getting RSI with all these zees—is a major Baltic port, which partly accounts for the historical ‘interest’ shown by its neighbors, including Germany and Sweden, and for centuries, and also had a thriving trade with Scotland for herring.

The latter may have been responsible for a delicious herring tartar, but by the time the main course arrived there was no escaping the meat—the entire menu focused on pork and goose, with a smattering of beef here and there.

Polish pig farming is infamous in the Baltic for the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus it dumps in the sea, which results in abnormal growth of algae—blooms of blue-greens are a particular issue.

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, fix nitrogen from the air and get phosphorus from polluted water, and cause oxygen problems in the deeper waters of the Baltic.

Over the weekend, I got a better feel for the region—this is West Pomerania, and we drove around some pretty poor areas. They grow a fair bit of carp in Poland, as they do in other regions of Eastern Europe—but the diet is meat, the carp are a Christmas tradition, and I can bet you a pound to a penny the kids hate it.

I’ve never been on a farm that doesn’t have old machines lying around, but how many bear the label: MADE IN USSR?

It’s duck hunting season right now, and there was much enthusiasm among the groups of men preparing to go out shooting. I think the adjective ‘solid’ may be the best way to describe Poles, and I mean that in a good way.

I delved deeper into the history—Szczecin has been invaded by pretty much everyone, but then that’s the history of Poland as a whole—the unfortunate filling of a sandwich breaded by Russia and Prussia.

Catherine the Great was born here, and I was enthralled with her sexual adventures. In particular I found that her close friend Praskovya Bruce was l’éprouveuse for Catherine’s new lovers—how much less sordid it sounds in French.

Praskovya’s job was to test the prospective lovers, after their proposal by Prince Potemkin, selection by Catherine, and inspection by a doctor. Countess Bruce’s role was more of a horizontal analysis of carrying capacity, presumably focusing on both quality and quantity.

Praskovya’s dilligence led to her being caught on the job, as it were, with Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov. This led to the downfall of both—Rimsky-Korsakov was then exiled in Brattsevo, where he lived in a relationship with the married Countess Stroganova, who bore him four children, (presumably) to her husband’s unending delight.

I shall resist the temptation to make any quips involving either rims or beef.

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


October 13, 2019

The Germans love a good compound word. Actually, back in the day they were also pretty fond of a good compound.

The young folks (and the not so young) are also partial to a good demonstration—being German, even youthful protesters go for it with supreme organizational skills.

I’m writing this in Tegel, which for a German airport is surprisingly poorly organized, but then this is Berlin—the city is probably the most un-German of them all, which also makes it the nicest.

I was here for a week, and then last Friday I marched east to Poland—it’s a local tradition. I’ll tell you about that next week, but meanwhile I’ll share two tidbits with you.

The first is that the Polish airwaves were full of martial speech over the weekend in preparation for today’s election, though I got the feeling many Poles were far more interested in tonight’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Macedonia.

The second is that I visited the birthplace of Catherine the Great—you are probably aware that she was a man-eater, and even at the ripe age of sixty (perhaps equivalent to eighty-five now) was still cavorting with sixteen-year-old boys (mind you, back then they were twenty-five, so don’t you me too me).

More on both of those (topics, not boys) next weekend.

Berlin was utter chaos, and my chosen means of transport was Lime—I’d tried them briefly in Spain, but by any standard I was a Lime virgin. In this flat city, I was occasionally the leader, or führer, as the locals say, of a posse of like-minded Limeys, linked together in a group ride—sharing is caring.

A little free publicity on account of all the fun I had with these babies.

But the chaos had merit—the city center was paralyzed by climate change activists. The meetings were called by an organization called Fridays For Future. Along the way, fellow travelers from the self-styled Extinction Rebellion also settled in for the duration.

By the time I left Berlin, at which point, for reasons I won’t go into, I had four guitars in the back of the car—Lime has its limits—the tents were everywhere.

The cops did their job, roads were blocked, traffic was infernal, and Liming your way through town was just the thing. And the demonstrations were pithy, colorful, and necessary.

I re-read one of my articles from 2009 and my conclusion is that ten years after, we are nowhere near where we need to be—in fact, the orange man and his gang of gut-feeling buffoons have made it worse.

Those kids out on the Berlin sidewalks, blocking Potsdamer Platz with the aid of couches and flowerpots, were only eight or nine back then—now they’re laden with righteous anger, bless ’em.

The last time I was here was during my pre-blog days, and evidence of the Berlin Wall was abundant, as were derelict five-year plan communist apartments, as vacuous and grey as Walter Ulbricht‘s ideology.

Now, the memories are spotty. But I was taking the autobahn daily to the Grenzallee exit—that means border alley, so you do the math.

Berlin is undergoing a frenzy of construction, roadworks, and general improvement—you’d think the Germans had a bit of cash to spare. The center was pretty glitzy, but the Grenzallee bit was rather different.

Gastarbeiter (there’s another of those compounds), or guest workers, are the norm, along with an abundance of kebab spots of dubious lineage. My gut survived those, although I did have a couple of gut feelings.

Not your regular campsite, five minutes away from the Bundestag, but maybe someone, sometime, will change something…

And because of my guitar escapades, I saw some truly dubious areas. The music guys I dealt with are serious gearheads—their clients include the Rolling Stones—but their compound (hmm…) features some pretty suspect establishments, including one stocked with old American limos, Caddy convertibles, and other unusually well-appointed vehicles.

All in all, Berlin remains a great place—head and shoulders above the rest of Germany.

In the immortal words of President Kennedy, I am a donut.

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

Giving Back

October 6, 2019

Whenever I start an article, I always do two things: I re-read my previous one (and often find a rogue typo to fix), and I look at the stats.

Statistics are  like a bikini—what they show is suggestive, what they hide is vital.

My blog stats usually spike the day I write and the day after, then they settle down. Roughly what statisticians might call a Poisson distribution—well-matched to my fishy nature—or even perhaps a Pareto curve.

Pareto is a darling of marketeers, and underpins the mantra that twenty percent of the products generate eighty percent of the sales. I’ve written on this previously, because of the way the internet flipped the distribution and produced the Long Tail.

Wired magazine published this image in 2004—it’s a wonderful illustration of the Long Tail, and explains why you can buy anything on ebay.

Vilfredo Pareto was born in the mid-XIXth century, and is described as a civil engineer, economist, and sociologist—quite a guy. But my blog is testimony to his distribution, because I see random articles from the past showing up from time to time—this week, perhaps because of the events in Hong Kong, this amusing one popped up.

But today I went further and had a look at the people who follow my writings regularly, rather than the ones who drop by.

What I found is heart-warming, and I want to thank you all for making time to come here and read. There are two groups, the first of which uses WordPress to make a connection. The others are folks who signed up and ask for a notification whenever I hit Publish.

In that second group, there are a number of people I don’t know, and who have never commented on here. The first group is entirely filled with folks I don’t know, but who write.

I spent some time this morning trawling their blogs, looking at what makes them tick. There’s a guy in the Philippines who is studying journalism, another gal who blogs on food—one of her posts extolled the virtues of a meat restaurant, and that got me thinking.

The whole food thing is changing quite rapidly, and in particular beef cattle is coming under fire from climate change activists. The feed conversion ratio (FCR) for beef is 6.8, which means it takes almost seven pounds of feed to produce one pound of steak. This doesn’t compare well with the FCR for salmon, which is around 1.2 in Norway, Scotland, and Canada.

However, when it comes to the carbon footprint, things get worse: cows come in at thirty pounds of CO2 per pound of edible meat, whereas salmon registers 2.9, one tenth of that number.

The high CO2 emissions for cattle are in good part due to the methane released by ruminants—their diet is not particularly digestible.

The attack on meat, particularly red meat, has recently led to a review that contradicts the advice given by doctors and nutritionists over the past decades, i.e. an excessive consumption carries significant cardio-vascular risks.

The dynamics of the food system are fascinating—in several European and North American countries, 5-10% of the population is vegetarian, and out of the remainder, there is a proportion that never buys or eats fish.

One interesting consequence is that the data on per capita consumption of fish may underestimate rates by 10-20%, which means that a proportion of the population should be healthier than the numbers show.

Conversely, the rest of that meat must be supplementing meat-eaters’ diets—if you’re skeptical about the Johnston article, then that’s bad news.

Whatever you eat, wherever you live, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to share a few thoughts with you every week.

But writing can be a lonely business—if you ever feel like writing back, come on in.

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

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