Little Britain

September 18, 2022

I just took off from the United Kingdom’s flagship airport—tomorrow, Heathrow will alter flight paths to avoid disturbing the procession leading Elizabeth II to her final resting place in Windsor palace, so flight chaos will be de rigeur.

I came over on a whistlestop tour—I was only in England one full day—but I depart saddened by the country’s predicament. Instead of ‘Glorious Britain’, ‘Cool Britannia’, ‘Brexit freedoms’, and all the other bollocks dished out by politicians and the media, I mostly saw a nation frozen in time, its citizens living in a make-believe world where nobody does it better.

I drove to a small town in Kent to attend a wedding—a church service followed by a reception—which in the UK is bizarrely called a breakfast, even though this meal began at six in the evening.

The trip down was arduous—not due to the distance but because of bank holiday traffic on a Friday afternoon. England has a tradition of calling any holiday a bank holiday, with the exception of Christmas Day and a couple of others.

This means the queen’s funeral tomorrow is a bank holiday Monday—wisely, I escaped a day early and am thirty thousand feet above the confusion—leaving just as all the pols arrive for the funeral. When the Met, as the London cops are called, describes it as the largest operation in their history, you really want to be eight miles high and heading south.

To get to my destination I had to drive down the M25 freeway—driving (an optimistic word) around London floods back memories of my close friend Russell, who died of cancer in early 2018. He was poleaxed by something called signet ring cell carcinoma—in five weeks he was dead.

I’d never heard of this cancer, but believe me, it has my full respect—if pancreatic cancer is a killer, this one is a KGB assassin.

Russ called the M25 the world’s biggest car park—I’ve been ‘driving’ it for decades, and it’s still one giant parking lot. My friend’s sense of humor was drier than a New York martini—one time he picked me up at Heathrow—doing seven miles an hour eastbound, he observed, “…bit of a racetrack here today”.

Both outbound and this morning—it has a half century of congestion that no amount of antihistamines can cure—many cars had only the driver, so the US car pool lane would be a great idea, but an American invention would not do at all, dahling.

When I got to my hotel, I discovered my room was located on the fourth floor, but the elevator was missing. There was in fact no concern at all for any disabled guests.

In all respects, the hotel resembled the classic Fawlty Towers British comedy series.

I reminded the receptionist that in the old John Cleese series, older people would occasionally die due to various mishaps such as climbing ten flights of stairs, and it would be a great shame for their establishment to re-enact the script.

My quip was wasted on the staff—they are now all Brits, presumably as a consequence of Brexit—the more service-minded contingent of southern Europeans, Poles, Czechs, and the like has departed.

I wasn’t struck by any desire to provide a service or explore the finer points of the term ‘hospitality’—my room’s shower was incapable of competently dispensing hot water, the freezing room reflected the challenges British people have in paying their gas bills, and the road accessing the car park was cut off at 9:30 this morning due to a race—no one warned any of the guests…

The wedding ‘breakfast’ took place in a castle—a rather grand setting in the beautiful British countryside—a plaque outside sported the gold stars of the European Union, whose regional development fund contributed to the building’s restoration.

Kent is a bastion of Brexit, so the irony is not lost—in keeping with signs in my room advising that ‘the radiator can get extremely hot’, when they should have told me that it can get extremely cold!

The fast-track security line at Heathrow couldn’t get passengers past the barcode reader gate because the queue was five rows abreast—I expected casket-viewing to be imminent—and as I reached the checkpoint after a forty-minute wait, a sign proudly informed me that Heathrow fast track was a world-class experience. Unlike Miami, Lisbon, and many other airports, in Heathrow, ‘world class’ means liquids in plastic bags and laptops out, further delaying everyone.

It’s this arrogance, patently detuned from reality, that stops Britain making the changes it needs to regain its position as a first-world country.

The queen was much-loved, to the extent that ordinary citizens felt the need to write poems mourning her passing, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, aka the sinister minister, proposed that Britain return to its former imperial glory by er… becoming imperial.

I don’t mean he intends to reconquer the entire commonwealth—even he’s not that dense—but that he feels the urge to roll back Britain’s decimal system of weights and measures to pre-1969.

For a minister regurgitated from Victorian times, the return to pounds, ounces, gallons, and gills, is only natural—part of the Brexit freedoms, dontcha know.

In truly democratic spirit, this enlightened mind asked the public to decide between the imperial system or the imperial system with metric sub-titles—the third option, i.e. whether a metric system should remain in place, was not part of the list—perhaps three choices would confuse the great British public.

The French opted for the decimal system in the late XVIIIth century and a movement for decimalization began in Britain in 1841—it took well over one hundred years to accept that a system based on multiples of ten was preferable to one predicated on twelve pence to a shilling, twenty shillings to a pound—but twenty-one for a guinea—sixteen ounces to the pound, and fourteen pounds to a stone.

And don’t get me started on spirits dispensed in multiples of one sixth of a gill—all sounds a bit fishy to me.

Many things are done better elsewhere in Europe, in North America, and other parts of the world, but Britain is unable to accept this—to do so would somehow imply that Brits are a lesser people, which would be outrageous.

Of course, that assumption is total nonsense—nations should profit from each other’s wisdom rather than follow a course of enlightened autism.

But how can you find a cure if you can’t find a problem?

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

Dumbing Down

September 11, 2022

Some books I read slowly and some I devour.

Humans are natural classifiers—we love pigeon-holing. He’s an idiot, she’s beautiful, a naturally happy baby, that dog was born angry… it’s how we roll.

Some people never read books—take the orangutan—in fact when you look at that pile of classified papers strewn over the carpet, you wonder how many light years it would take for those materials to be read. They’re pretty much his equivalent of a presidential library.

Others read books occasionally, some feel they should read regularly, so there’s always a book—what book are you reading at the moment?

Into the last pigeonhole go people like me who read various books concurrently—some apace. Ray Kurzweil’s book ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines’ is one of my slow books. Anne Applebaum’s ‘Red Famine’ is another, and Alvy Ray Smith’s ‘A Biography of the Pixel’ is yet another.

For different reasons.

Applebaum because the horrors comrades Lenin and Stalin committed to the Ukraine in the first half of the XXth century are worse than what the current dictator ending in ‘in’ is doing in the first half of the XXIst—I just can’t read it at one sitting—it’s too brutal.

Alvy Ray Smith because the parable of the pixel has a lot of math in it, and although I read a lot professionally, this kind of reading (and writing) should be both hobby and relaxation. The Pixel is a brilliant book, and the history of images, video, movies, and Pixar is compelling, but it is a journey.

Kurzweil is a futurist, inventor, and deep thinker. One of his big ideas is the singularity—a point when machines surpass humans in intelligence, which opens up the wriggly, elusive, and stinky can of worms called Artificial Intelligence.

AI is a recurring topic of mine and an integral part of my new book, The Hourglass—yes, I’ve finished it, after six years work—well, there’s an epilogue left to write, and that will happen later today.

I have very mixed feelings about AI—it’s the classic case of the sorcerer’s apprentice. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re pushing on. It’s kind of weird—when humans emerged from prehistory, other animals must have thought, ‘These dudes don’t stand a chance.’

Elephants, lions, gorillas, wolves, and eagles did a two-minute threat assessment and concluded, ‘Look at these little rodents scurrying around. They can’t run, jump, trample, fight, or fly. I wonder if they even taste good.

Ever since that trivial underestimation by the entire animal kingdom, courtesy of a bizarrely brilliant brain, the opposable thumb, and tool development, we have engaged in controlling every other life form on the planet through domestication, mastication, and extermination.

In the case of AI, we seem inordinately keen to develop our new masters, and are well on the way to do so. This is Kurzweil’s singularity—he predicts it will occur by 2048—a mere quarter-century from now, or the generation time for humans.

In practice this means that any child born today will be subjugated by machines by the time they become an adult.

We see AI at work every minute of the day, for both good and bad—it helps simplify tedious tasks, improves medicine, grants access to knowledge… and replaces jobs that can be well performed by humans with impersonal and remote interaction.

I have speculated that humans will never be dominated because we are just too evil—we’ll never manage to make machines that nasty.

But there’s another side to AI that doesn’t work at all—it relates to ambiguity and interpretation, and of course that dovetails with humor.

Fallacious argument—not to be confused with fellatious argument—is one example.

The duchess has a beautiful ship but she has barnacles on her bottom.

This classic fallacy only works because in English ships are female, and it is quoted in guides for better writing, but humans can of course tell the difference—AI could analyze the statement and conclude that a barnacle is a marine crustacean—it would attribute a low probability to the assumption that the duchess regularly parked her ass in seawater, allowing the free-floating barnacle larvae to settle, review anti-fouling literature in the context of navigation, and draw the correct conclusion. A human would smile at the ludicrous statement and move on in a millisecond.

About ten years ago, researchers pointed out that simple questions whose answers are evident to humans give AI a run for their money.

Do alligators sew?

How long does it take a wolf to bake a cake?

Do newts play piano?

Can a ridgeback strum chords?

The above are my versions—Google made a pig’s ear of all the replies and the images it returned when answering that last question are dumb.

The most interesting features of this Google search are (i) that the global search showed no relevant hits and only produced a half-page of images; and (ii) there is no connection between dog and guitar. I called the file ridgeback rock to throw AI off the scent. Proper AI would suggest I’m taking the piss.

And yet, my last question is a refinement of ‘can dogs play guitar?’, a question any playful four-year old might pose. And if you said yes—I would, explaining dogs do that by squatting, extending their (fretboard) tail across their body and strumming with their right paw (unless they’re left-handed)— the child would giggle and tell you you’re teasing. Duh.

Oh, and FYI dogs never use thumbpicks.

But AI could explore the fact that ridgebacks are dogs and a chord is played on a stringed instrument such as a ukelele, mandolin, or guitar. The lack of association between dogs and musical instruments might give the computer a hint that I was taking the piss.

Incidentally, if you ask Google: Can cats take the piss?

It comes back with piffle such as ‘is my cat urinating inappropriately?

My deepest sympathy to folks who wander through life asking those sorts of questions.

Researchers into the dumb side of AI formulated ambiguous questions such as:

Joan made sure to thank Susan for all the help she had received. Who had received the help?

a) Joan
b) Susan

or

Sam tried to paint a picture of shepherds with sheep, but they ended up looking more like golfers. What looked like golfers?

a) The shepherds
b) The sheep

It tickles me particularly to imagine sheep looking like golfers—maybe they stole the crook.

Such questions, which are classified linguistically as anaphora, are AI kryptonite.

One of the foremost proponents of AI is IBM—forever embarrassed when its poster child Watson told Jeopardy that Toronto was a US city.

Perhaps they should have called it Sherlock.

Watson, I mean, not Toronto.

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

Diletto

September 3, 2022

In the United States, the market for vibrators is worth seven hundred and fifty million dollars per year. One California company sells four million vibrators annually—worth one tenth of the total market.

That means Americans purchase forty million dildos every year—I’m not sure of the gender and demographic split, but we can do a bit of math.

According to the U.S. census bureau, out of a population of 331 million, 258 million are eighteen and over—let’s leave teenagers out of this and go with that number.

Gallup estimates 5.6% of Americans are LGBT, so there must be more—let’s go with eight per cent, or about twenty million people. That leaves about one hundred and eighteen million straight women—I’m assuming heterosexual guys don’t buy vibrators, but I’m probably very wrong.

With these numbers, the potential market size is one hundred forty million citizens—that’s a new dildo purchased every three and a half years.

I wanted to know the price of these toys for my calculations and I soon found out Amazon has a whole section dedicated to er… sexual wellness, sporting no less than five categories of dildos—at times like this I realize what a sheltered life I’ve led.

I did a little digging and was stunned at the variety and creativity on display—it must be an extraordinary occupation to be a dildo designer, and the mind boggles at the testing and quality-control programs.

The prize for the most imaginative tool, if you excuse the pun (they had to come sooner or later, if you excuse the pun), goes to a product called Clone-A-Willy. I won’t paste an image, in the interest of good taste, but you can click the link (I bet you do)—among some of the other marketing blurb, we are told that this makes:

AN EXACT COPY OF YOUR FAVORITE MEMBER: Our medically tested molds capture incredibly life-like detail, making it the most personalized DIY dick casting kit on the planet!

Who knew?

Before I read the story of Chaloner, I thought vibrators were a product of the last century—well, the XIXth century, really, because of a decorative piece I saw in Venice in 2016.

On a dining room wall, there hung (sorry) an object closely resembling a hand-drill, but adapted for a thrusting motion—the proud owner of the restaurant (and the dildo) explained it was used as a medical device to treat women for hysteria.

This XIXth century vibrator is similar to the one I saw in Venice, but lacks the dashing Italian design. I return to Venice at the end of September and promise you a picture of the Gucci version.

I now stand corrected—and realize the vibrator has a long and noble history, dating back to at least the year 29,000 BC, during the Neanderthal period.

Predictably, the oldest example of this fine art was found in Germany—always a world leader in technology—but we’re talking about rock carvings, so it may be they were just dickpics.

The dildo, whose name originates in the Italian word diletto, or pleasure, is amply illustrated in the paintings of ancient Egypt—Cleopatra is said to have used a hollow gourd filled with bees as a vibrator—that must have been quite the orgasm!

Much like the history of empire, navigation, and wine, the Greeks are next on the scene. The Greek warriors would leave olisbos with their wives while on campaign in faraway places—the men believed lack of sperm led their women to hysteria—a recurring theme until the twentieth century.

Although dildos have been found throughout the centuries—including tools made of gold and ivory, for the landed classes—they were banned in England and the United States a few centuries ago, seen as a threat to male sexuality.

But of course a vibrator is simply another means for a normal woman to have an orgasm, which is as natural as the sunrise and the ocean.

Of the many articles I researched to bring you this chronicle, I’ve chosen one for further reading—sexual history isn’t taught at school, but it’s important.

I particularly enjoyed the humor in that text—the notion that the Ancient Greeks baked penis-shaped bread (I’ve seen variations elsewhere) is great, and of course that led to olive oil as a favorite—and at the time, the only—lube.

And the dietary notion that inserting a penile bread roll into your pussy rather than in the usual orifice is a great way of cutting on carbs just has to make you laugh.

Unsaturated fats too, if you’re into extra virgin olive oil—might end up as the dildo diet.

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

Cereal Killers

August 27, 2022

Where there’s muck there’s brass.

This little ditty is best said with a broad Yorkshire accent—and for those less familiar with obscure English slang, the skinny is: where there’s shit there’s money. Or we could have a go in Yiddish: where there’s drek there’s gelt—not at all sure that exists, but it could.

Okay, enough with the cunning linguistics already, although I must say drek is such a nice word for shit.

Drek before you trek, drekday, dipdrek… the mind wanders.

One thing is certain—troubled places and troubled times always share two qualities: danger and money.

And there are always hustlers, gamblers, conmen, and pavement artists ready to cash in.

For a minute, I wandered down the rabbit hole of conmen and discovered one unsavory fellow by the name of William Chaloner—in a nanodigression, I’ll share with you that this chap lived in the XVIIth century and was executed by hanging in 1699, after none other than Isaac Newton proved him guilty of high treason—to wit, forging the coin of the realm.

Chaloner merits a line in today’s article because during his career as a forger and conman he also sold dildos—I admire his devotion to his nature as a forger by… forging penises.

There’s an anonymous biography of yer man, called Guzman Redivivus—please do enjoy a short trip into obscurantism, courtesy of the Newton Project.

The Ukrainian war presents much muck and not a little brass. Energy companies are raking in profits, but today let’s talk about cornflakes.

And bread.

And biscuits.

And meat—in fact, and practically everything that contains starch, sweeteners, gums, or gluten.

Central to the supply of raw materials that drive the world food system—the emphasis here is on grain—are four gigantic multinationals called ABCD. These are ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus—the first three are American, the last is French—Dreyfus is a well-known name in France for all the wrong reasons.

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Bunge are both publicly traded, so how are these guys doing?

ADM five year-to date stock prices on the NYSE.

Very well, thank-you.

For example, ADM’s net income is up 74% in Q2, its net profit margin is up 46%, and in the second quarter it handily beat its earnings per share forecast by 25%, with a 10% increase in revenue. Bunge’s stock is not quite so sanguine, but it’s still pretty healthy—the dips in its price reflect charges previously incurred.

The ADM chart shows the Covid dip in early 2020 followed by a steady increase until early 2022. As soon as the Winter Olympics ended—there are multiple reports that China told Putin not to invade until the end of the Olympics—the ADM stock began its steep climb.

Cargill is the largest private company in the world, with a revenue (2018) of 115 billion USD, and is notoriously tight-lipped about its business—Dreyfus is French-owned but based in Switzerland, and not much is known about it either.

Because of this uncertainty, it’s difficult to pin down what proportion of the world grain market ABCD control—estimates range from seventy to ninety percent. These are remarkably high numbers—even with uncertainty—and do not really fit the free-market concept.

Food prices are up by twenty per cent, and Cargill’s revenue is now 165 billion USD, up one third since 2018—Dreyfus revenues are about 1% of Cargill’s, but it reported a significant increase in profit.

With so many people in the US and Western Europe now suffering the kind of food insecurity they’re only used to seeing on TV in shows about developing nations, the pressure is rapidly mounting on ABCD.

There’s an argument that the profit margins on the grain giants have not increased, so what’s the fuss?

The fuss is that if you have a 5% profit margin on fifty billion sales that’s 2.5 billion, but on 100 billion it doubles. That extra 2.5 billion is made on the same volume—the sales haven’t doubled, just the unit price.

I’ve now been writing these pieces for almost fifteen years—during the early 2010s I forecast that austerity in Southern Europe might well lead to serious blood-letting—fortunately it didn’t happen then. With the benefit of hindsight, I very much believe it can happen now.

It is axiomatic that what happens in the US and Europe will always have a worse outcome in Africa, Asia, and South America—many countries there are already at a tipping point.

Desperate people do desperate things, wherever in the world they live, and…

violence is contagious.

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

Once Upon a Time

August 20, 2022

A rapper called Timati has taken over Starbucks in Russia. Like many US companies, the coffee giant responded to the Ukraine ‘military operation’—like calling open heart surgery a capillary puncture—by pulling out of the Russian Federation.

The takeover itself is irrelevant—the fact that Timati released a song called ‘My Best Friend is Vladimir Putin’ is far more worrying. Timati belongs to an ubiquitous category called sycophants, which these days also includes the vast majority of the US republican party.

Among Timati’s records—I won’t link any because they’re dreadful, but like many atrocious things they’re easily found—is one called ‘Moscow’, which has the dubious honor of getting pulled from YouTube after collecting 1.8 million dislikes.

The lyrics are pro-president, pro-mayor, anti-protest, and anti-gay. It refers to Moscow as ‘the city where they don’t hold gay parades’—non-gay pride, if you like.

When I was doing my PhD, there was a palace coup at the university and my supervisor got thrown out of my department. I watched in amazement as fellow graduate students, folks who regularly bought this guy presents—one woman even asked him for permission to get pregnant—turned on a dime and told me the most vicious stories about their professor.

All of them requested a change of supervisor—I did not, despite the fact that I remained in the department from which he was ejected—but then I’d never bought apples for the teacher.

This story illustrates two principles: the first is that moral courage is in very short supply, and the second is that if you’re surrounded by sycophants, they’ll be the first to hang you from a tree when your luck turns.

So before we go on, let’s have a song that celebrates summer and is sufficiently silly to make us all smile.

Some people are naturally disposed to be sycophants, but mainly it’s a matter of interest. That interest may be driven by fear—think Saddam Hussein’s cabinet—but money and professional hierarchy also works.

I’ve hired people and watched their fawning attitude to me, in sharp contrast to how they treat their colleagues, particularly those lower down the ladder—I find it despicable. Dictatorships, such as the multiple decades of Salazar in Portugal and Franco in Spain, create wonderful opportunities for a sycophant culture—which never fails to develop.

It’s a horrible, artificial context—full of back stabbing and falsehood—and it’s led to a whole industry of synonyms, including fawning, sucking up, groveling, and at the darker end, ass licking and brown nosing.

But of all the motivations for brown nosing, fear is undoubtedly the strongest driver.

I’d never thought I’d feel sorry for Liz Cheney, but I do see her as a beacon in a party blindsided by fear. The orangutan is on the record with “real power is… fear.” How is it that the land of the free—or in this case half of it, as represented in congress—is one giant marshmallow of fear?

In a democracy, fear cannot prevail.

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

Mount Kenya

August 14, 2022

The Western news this summer oscillates between the suffocating heat in Europe and the political heat in America, with occasional forays into the military heat of the Ukraine.

Elsewhere, though, things are happening.

Last Tuesday, August 9th, Kenya voted—a general election in Africa is always a momentous occasion, since it invariably reflects tribal rivalries—far more than it portrays policy or promotes peace.

In some nations, such as the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, the incumbent party is so rooted to the power structure that change is as unlikely as uprooting a baobab with your bare hands.

The mighty baobab, called imbondeiro in Mozambique. The photo from early 2020, just before the pandemic paralyzed the planet, makes me dream of the vastness and peace of African big skies.

But Kenya is not a dictatorship and the tribal balance is different—it’s now the weekend, and they’re still counting votes.

In an article published earlier this year, I described my journey to Kisumu—the town is flagged as a spelling error in WordPress—home to the people of the lake.

The Luo, to which Obama belongs, are the ‘almost there’ tribe. Raila Odinga—the man who almost won the 2007 election—is of course a Luo, given away by the first letter of his surname. I couldn’t find the meaning of the name, but that didn’t stop me having a merry old time with Obonyo (born during locust infestation), Odek (born when the mother had picked up traditional vegetables from farm), and Okongo (born during celebration especially where alcohol brew is plenty).

In 2007, Odinga’s defeat by the Kikuyu incumbent Mwai Kibaki led to a de facto civil war—Odinga had been declared the winner until a Trumpian dream occurred—elections were held on December 27th, Odinga called victory on the 29th, and the next day two hundred and thirty thousand votes magically appeared, tipping the scales back to the Kikuyu candidate.

Like the Indian rain dance—it works because it only stops when the rain starts—it’s possible that in Kenya the vote count only stops when the Kikuyu candidate wins.

However, this time round, there is no Kikuyu running.

The man opposing the veteran Luo is called William Ruto, and he’s a Kalenjin.

The funny thing about Ruto is that he backed Odinga in 2007, while Uhuru Kenyatta backed Kibaki.

The two backers had at the time been charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with crimes against humanity after the 2007 election. In a marriage made in political heaven, Kenyatta and Ruto ran for office in 2013 and won the presidency—but now Kenyatta has served his two terms.

By the time the 2022 race came up, the Uhuru and William bromance was long gone, and now Kenyatta is backing the Luo candidate—who knew…

Right now, it looks like Ruto might make it—the Kalenjin are long distance runners—Daniel arap Moi was president for twenty-four years. But we’ll have to wait until Tuesday to know for certain.

If Odinga wins, he’ll exorcise the old saw that a Luo cannot become president in Kenya—only in the United States. It will be his fifth attempt, at the ripe age of seventy-seven.

From Reuters to the BBC, any mention of tribes is studiously avoided—in Kenya itself, it’s almost taboo, like a dark family secret. Nevertheless, the tribal narrative is key to determine political outcomes.

Kenya is beautiful, dangerous, and troubled.

May its future be as tall as the African skies.

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

Dolce Far Niente

August 8, 2022

The Italians coined the expression almost one hundred years ago, but the concept dates back to the ascent of man—and woman.

The sweetness of doing nothing—what an amazing idea. As I hunt around for thoughts to adorn my page, I come across Psychology Today. One paragraph takes my fancy.

All the noise—the Facebook, the reality TV, the latest and greatest no-one-can-get-in-there-without-calling-a-month-ahead restaurant—it all fades away when we can just do nothing. What surfaces is life—our feelings at the moment (whether it be grace or despair), our ego vanishes and our true self emerges.

For those who do very little, it’s a challenge to get anything done. For others—my world—the difficulty is switching off.

But I’ve taken a few days downtime in southwest Europe—a close friend asked about my blog, and I woke up this morning with an urge to write. It’s nine in the morning on a Monday, so in a way this feels like dolce far niente—I mean, who has the time to string a few idle sentences together on the first day of the week except someone with absolutely nothing to do?

And that’s all I’m doing this morning—drawing a few circles in the sand and hoping to lure you into my world of thoughts and dreams—but maybe I think too much.

Everywhere I turn, folks are working as hard as they can at doing absolutely nothing—on beaches, in bars and restaurants, walking around…

Off the main drag there’s a strip mall—or at least as close as it gets to that in this part of the world. There are a couple of low-budget restaurants—I walked by one on Saturday morning and it was empty and desolate—how can anyone turn a buck here, I wondered. In the early evening it was jam-packed, the tables decorated with dubious-looking pizza, the patrons smiling and laughing.

It’s good to come here and feel this vibe—this is where ordinary, decent, local people take their holidays—the purse strings rule, so the vacation is tightly regimented. Ten miles east, we’re in Plaza del Privilege—this is where the north Europeans come to roost—a land of riches, rosés, and risottos.

And yet, the strip mall is a maze of discovery. Across from the restaurants is an Italian bar, blooming with red, white, and green bunting—I was expecting it to be staffed by fake Italians, but no, this is the real deal.

And along from that is a budget supermarket—and in the early evening it’s brimming with people who suddenly woke up from their idleness and collectively realized it was dinner time. Spanish people gabbling incomprehensibly, bright red Brits emerging with cases of beer, serious-looking Germans contemplating fiscally responsible purchases, and locals scraping for staples—inflation does not sit idly by.

The queue is huge, the tellers look exhausted, and the season’s only half-way in! And no one seems to use the automatic tills—I marvel at this mystery as I ring up my red wine, dodge the crowd, and retreat to idleville.

And then, next to a bar showing a soccer game on a big screen, is… a sex shop—rather out of place, it occurs to me, amid these more prosaic amenities and kids out with the family for an evening stroll.

And whereas the window dressing might provide a hint of the delights within, perhaps with a few pieces of seductive lingerie or a partly camouflaged sex toy, this store goes straight for the gonads, with the most diverse collection of dildos on show for all to peruse.

I pause a moment to wonder what boxes a woman ticks as she makes her choice on such an important item of holiday apparel—but I’ve led far too sheltered a life to arrive at a meaningful conclusion.

It really is a skill of the highest order, the art of doing nothing.

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

Gaia

July 30, 2022

James Lovelock died four days ago, on his 103rd birthday.

On that day, July 26th, 2022, temperatures in southern Spain were over the one hundred mark—I know, I was there. By all accounts, it’s already been an extraordinary summer in the northern hemisphere, with temperature records broken in a number of countries, including the U.K.

Few people have heard of Lovelock, and those in the scientific world who know of him mostly regard him as a maverick—largely because of the Gaia theory, the concept that our planet is a self-regulating entity. Our earth is not a sentient being, and as such cannot knowingly regulate itself, but it is a fact that the biosphere reacts to change and acts to redress the balance, rather than tipping the system into a tragic spiral.

Darwin’s evolutionary theory doesn’t have space for mother earth to be some kind of guide, promoting actions in response to human or natural aggressions—Lovelock was pounded by the likes of Richard Dawkins, a brilliant but irascible researcher.

Lovelock was an extremely clever man—one of the fathers of gas chromatography, a technique used to detect very small amounts of substances—that’s important for two reasons: it pays to detect problems early, and in some cases, even a small amount can cause a lot of harm.

He was a tinkerer, an inventor—the best inventors require only two qualities: a vivid imagination and lots of junk. One of his devices, the Electron Capture Detector, or ECD, detected chlorofluorocarbons in the Antarctic stratosphere—from there came the science on the holes in the ozone layer and their consequences for increased ultraviolet radiation and skin cancer.

CFCs are the most potent greenhouse gases of all, ten thousand times more efficient than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere—Lovelock’s device and his CFC discovery led to the 1987 Montreal protocol—without it, climate change would be considerably worse.

This great man conformed to the tradition of previous centuries, when brilliant scientists struggled to make a living, sometimes as advisers of nobility or by turning their hand to smaller matters. These were men who moved comfortably from physics to biology, from mathematics to medicine—Lovelock too investigated a wide range of topics, ranging from industrial toxins to life on Mars.

James Lovelock was one of the first to speak about climate change, its causes, and its consequences.

In 2011, he said in an interview:

My main reason for not relaxing into contented retirement is that like most of you I am deeply concerned about the probability of massively harmful climate change and the need to do something about it now.

We’re now in 2022—eleven years have flown by, not much has been done, the climate change prophet is no longer with us…

…and it’s getting toasty.

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

Across The Universe

July 16, 2022

Universality is a unifying concept.

Aristotle coined the term ‘natural philosophy’ to describe the science of physics—in fact the Greek word φυσική, or physics, means knowledge of nature.

Rutherford reinforced that by stating ‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting’, which pissed off not a few colleagues.

The big idea behind physics is universality—principles that apply anywhere and everywhere—an example would be Newton’s second law, f=ma, which can be applied to the acceleration of gravity, the Gulf Stream ocean current, or a running dog (whether imperialist or not).

Universality also applies to a select group of three languages—Math, Music, and Love.

The three are strongly connected—love and music, duh; love and math in areas such as symmetry, reciprocity, and yes, antagonism; math and music? Well, that’s what I want to talk about today.

Most kids warm naturally to music—it’s formative: even the most tuneless parent soothes their child with some trivial tune—and children are thankfully tone-deaf in their early years.

When humanity began to make sense of sounds—millennia before the concepts of frequency and wavelength were formulated, let alone calculated—singers and players began to define scales.

A scale ends at a pitch (or frequency) that is double where you started—since the speed of sound is constant, that must be half the wavelength. The last note in the scale is an octave higher than the first note—the clue’s in the name, there are eight notes in a scale, the last one being the octave.

The English, ever practical—or perhaps anxious to be different from everyone else—called them A,B,C,D,E,F,G,(A)—the rest of the world uses Do,Re,Mi,Fa,Sol,La,Si,(Do). And since Do (or Doh) is C rather than A, that further complicates matters—next thing you know they’ll want to drive on the left!

So clearly A stands for arbitrary and C for The Continent, which one should steer well clear of—but music, like math, becomes complicated because of the way it’s taught.

There’s a whole body of science that derives from classical music, including a notation system (a staff or stave), and traditionally kids learn through variations on this (classical) theme. Scales are many and varied, with roots (pun alert) in Ancient Greece—for instance the Lydian and Dorian—or Persia.

Through the years, things have undoubtedly evolved—I googled ‘modern music lessons’, and the first hit was modernmusicschool.com—in Tehran, of all places. A little further down it says ‘Book a free trials lesson now!’, which given the nature of the Iranian regime, might well come in handy.

The school claims it will teach your favorite songs, but I wonder how one of the more popular offerings from the late great Janis Joplin would go down with faculty (it’s in D, by the way). As for the pics…

All children—except those with no interest at all—should learn music, precisely because of its connection to the other two universal languages, and the role it plays in our happiness—it’s so much easier to sing your blues away than to try to tell people about your heavy heart.

But kids don’t need to learn a lot of music theory—very little, in fact. And picking up on Aristotle, children will arrive at their own conclusions through inductive reasoning just like the early rock n’ roll artists, and the Beatles and the Stones did.

If you play a minor, it’s a sad song—you play a seventh, you’re hanging on the edge of the eighth floor, and you need to resolve—either jump off or get back in.

The fact that’s it’s actually a minor third or a dominant seventh is something you might be curious about at some point down the road, but right now it mustn’t stop you playing your favorite songs—Iranian or otherwise.

When you ask Wikipedia about the dominant seventh, it’s enough to put you off your lunch.

In music theory, a dominant seventh chord, or major minor seventh chord,[a] is a seventh chord, usually built on the fifth degree of the major scale, and composed of a root, major third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh. Thus it is a major triad together with a minor seventh, denoted by the letter name of the chord root and a superscript “7”. An example is the dominant seventh chord built on G, written as G7, having pitches G–B–D–F…

Keep it simple for children, add complexity as needed. The other thing you quickly understand about playing music is you have to count. Not really math, just arithmetic—it’s the three ‘R’s: Rock, Roll, ‘Rithmetic—musicians count with their feet, leaving the hands free for other tasks.

So there you are—if you can’t count, you’re shit out of luck.

When it comes to music, both Paul McCartney and I are self-taught.

I guess he just had a better teacher.

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

Eton Mess

July 9, 2022

Of all the British public schools—which of course are anything but public—Eton is the best known, and the one that most defines the English upper class. There is a clear track from Eton to Oxbridge—another nice British term (excuse the pun) that contracts Oxford and Cambridge as Britain’s only elite universities.

The British upper class is readily identified by its accent and often by an assortment of speech impediments—the range of impedimenta includes a lisped s, a fake stammer, and rhotacism—if you suffer from the latter you will of course pwonounce it wotacism. Wordpwess flags that as a gwamatical ewwor so it’s obviously not a vewy upper-class-fwiendly platform.

Mess is a good classifier for the Muppet show offered up by the British Government over the last week.

Since the vote of (no) confidence served up on June 6th by the 1922 Committee, where Johnson was clearly damned with faint praise, the road downhill has been sinuous and slippery.

Jeremy Hunt immediately threw down the gauntlet, writing ‘Today’s decision will be change or lose. I will be voting for change.’ Not everyone has good memories of Hunt’s stint as health secretary—at one point two doctors appeared with a placard that read, ‘I’m not a gynaecologist but I know a Hunt when I see one.’

Nadine Dorris—never the sharpest of tools—tweeted ‘Your pandemic preparation during six years as health secretary was found wanting and inadequate. Your duplicity right now in destabilising the party and country to serve your own personal ambition, more so.

Hunt’s duplicity has clearly been found both wanting and inadequate—must try harder, as they used to write in my public school report.

Over the last weekend of June, Britain basked in glory as Paul McCartney headlined Glastonbury on the pyramid stage, bringing on Springsteen to sing Glory Days. Then mid-week, an MP called Pincher was suspended for allegedly groping two men in a private members club (you couldn’t make it up).

Britain’s upper class also has form when it comes to er… unconventional behavior, so the fact that Pincher of the alleged member groping fracas was also deputy chief whip at the time conjures up all sorts of imagery.

In the grand scheme of things, such a non-event would be a fait divers, but in this case Johnson accumulated one cock-up (sorry) too many. Boris’s nemesis, Dominic Cummings, alleged that the prime minister had quipped ‘Pincher by name, pincher by nature’, adding fuel to an already satisfying blaze.

What followed over the past week can best be described as an Eton mess, as cabinet members resigned, half-resigned, were reassigned, accepted, resigned, and finally consigned their prime minister to the position of ex-prime minister.

It was an astonishing week in politics, and one that made Britain the comedic capital of the free world.

The reality soap opera continues, with the Conservative party now debating how long Johnson should stay in an office—the PM has appointed a new cabinet in the meantime.

The only way to assuredly throw him out is to change the 1922 committee rules and carry through a vote of no confidence, or to ‘go to the country’, a euphemism for a general election—the Conservative Party certainly has no appetite for that option, given the current national shit show—featuring an imminent recession, the euro-chaos in Northern Ireland, and rampant inflation.

And never, ever, ever, do British politicians of any stripe mention the ‘B’ word. Britain’s woes can be blamed on anything except Brexit.

The current farce has been further enhanced by the prospect of a Chequers wedding bash for Boris and spouse, which has been given as a reason for the lame duck PM to hang on for a few weeks—press reports currently suggest a change in venue, but invitations are already out.

Over the last two years, I regularly watched cabinet ministers on the Sunday circuit extolling Johnson’s virtues and excusing whatever his current mess might be—no longer, there’s not one voice singing his praises now.

Well, at least he has a dog.

As they say on Wall Street, if you want a friend, buy a dog

Not to worry. If the Chequers bash does materialize, I’m sure they’ll serve up a nice Eton Mess.

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


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