Archive for the ‘Finance’ Category

The Lead Balloon

November 26, 2022

It all began on election night.

The orange man publicly announced er… an announcement.

Predicting election results is a mug’s game, so it was thoroughly in character for the orangutan to let his cultists know, sandwiched in smirks, that there would be a big announcement the following Tuesday.

However, American voters did the unthinkable—they returned the US Senate to the Democratic Party, and almost did the same with the House of Representatives. Governors? the balance shifted from 28 (GOP) – 22 to a more even 26 – 24.

In a characteristic confirmation of unsound judgement, Trump told the nation on Tuesday, November 15th, that he would run for president in 2024. He didn’t do this with clipped, professional delivery but by launching on an endless rant worthy of your cantankerous uncle who specializes in ruining everyone’s Thanksgiving.

The Democrats didn’t say much—when you have a guy in a hole with a spade, digging furiously, why interrupt?

The Grand Old Party, however, was none too pleased with the electoral outcome—not only was the Senate lost, but the candidates that helped lose it were in some cases Trump-endorsed choices. Even before the mid-terms, the orange man came out and said he should ‘get all the credit’ for wins and ‘not be blamed at all’ for losses.

Again, this is a predictable position for a man who never took blame for anything. Not the way Russian aggression escalated, not the pointless antics with the Korean mini-nuke, not the pandemic response and mass deaths, zilch!

The orang-u-tan is part of a political class that doesn’t apologize—sorry is not part of the vocabulary. This is an elite club that has an exclusive membership, including Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro.

A very young Elton John explains why politicians don’t apologize.

I struggle with people who can’t say sorry—since it’s a straightforward observation that everyone makes mistakes or gets things wrong at some time or other, then clearly politicians also do.

I find it pathetic to be unable or unwilling to apologize for behavior that misleads, hurts, or injures others, and even worse to start off by saying ‘Even though you can’t swim, I’m going to throw you in the deep end. If you survive, I’ll take the credit, if you drown you can’t possibly blame me.’

At least four Trump-endorsed Senate candidates: Oz, Bolduc, Levy, and Malloy couldn’t swim. In the House, the number was double—eight drowned. In the gubernatorial race, nine candidates sank without a trace—now that’s a whole lot not to take blame for.

The change to abortion rights is one of the factors you can blame for the Republican debacle, and there you can lay the blame squarely at the feet of new Trump-appointed judges like Amy Coney Barrett—whose appointment Trump evidently can’t be blamed for.

In passing, it’s ironic that a segment of the Republican party is so insistent about banning abortion in the U.S. Since lower-income families are more in need of local options to terminate a pregnancy, and presumably would have more challenges bringing up kids (Coney-Barrett has seven), then surely keeping abortion legal would reduce the expansion of the immigrant vote.

Over the next two years (well, one and a bit, really), the GOP has a lot to think about. Many within the party cannot countenance a Trump run—though a segment of the American public still adores him, for reasons I can’t work out.

Republican pols know very well he is a demagogue, but more importantly, they now know he’s a demagogue who cannot lead them back to power—even though he can lose them their seats.

In this crazy game of politics, with its incredibly serious consequences, the needle of the backstreet abortionist punctured the orange Trump balloon and the mid-terms watched it zigzag madly through the air, whistling its demise.

Like an ageing boxer too punch-drunk to see straight, the man doesn’t know when he’s beat.

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

The Climes They Are-A-Changing

November 12, 2022

I gave a seminar this week for one hundred and fifty high school students.

I began by telling them I’d never spoken in a conference hall with signs announcing it was forbidden to jump—they didn’t find it amusing—perhaps all their classrooms are jumpless.

Their teacher apologized for the restlessness of the students, but actually they were very good—no one jumped and everyone listened.

I told them I accepted the invitation because they are the future, and then apologized for the appalling performance of my generation in addressing climate change—in many cases even accepting it.

When you type ‘is climate change’ into Google, the first suggestion reads ‘is climate change real’.

I tried ‘is the pope’ and ‘does the bear’, but instead of ‘is the pope Catholic, does the bear shit in the woods?’ I read ‘does the bearing straight freeze over’.

I can address that sans click.

The bearing straight does not, but the Bering Strait freezes a lot less that it used to.

Climate change isn’t on the curriculum of the 15-17 year-old science students I addressed. In the US, it is also not part of the program in many high schools.

The problem begins there—if a formal education isn’t provided, there’s a highway of hype waiting to be explored.

Why is the issue of climate change so intractable?

It’s non-linear, but in a rather subtle way. We struggle greatly with anything but gradual change.

The climate has changed dramatically over geological time—two billion years ago, in the pre-Cambrian, the Grand Canyon was underwater. sixty-five million years ago, dinosaurs vanished from the earth. So what’s the big deal?

That is! After the dinos, it took millions of years for hominids to emerge, and now we’re here, but for how long?

Climate change isn’t a big deal for the planet, it’s a big deal for humans. If the world gets too uncomfortable for us, we will disappear. How will that happen?

It’s clearly happening already—droughts, floods, messed up seasons, and rising water levels are all symptoms of this disease.

If we follow the Gaia hypothesis put forward by the late James Lovelock, the planet is fighting back. It’s as if Earth recognizes the root causes of the disorder, i.e. humans, and is therefore making it very uncomfortable for the offenders—food shortages, environmental catastrophes, and mass migrations are some of the weapons in its arsenal.

We get confused about climate and weather—humans are short-term thinkers, and because a gradual change in the climate leads to extreme shifts in weather, the signal gets eclipsed by the noise. Noise has a random component, and the weather effects are extreme—it’s perfectly possible to have an abnormally cold winter or a cooler summer although the planet is warming.

A sea level rise of three feet is enough to make most of Miami Beach disappear.

The next fallacy accepts that the climate is changing, but refuses to admit that human activities are the cause—despite the fact that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is the highest ever. You can’t measure atmospheric CO2 from 100,000 years ago—at least not directly—but scientists take Antarctic ice cores that are hundreds of feet long and measure the concentration of deuterium, which is a good proxy for CO2.

The real question, once we dispense with the dross, is ‘What are we prepared to do about climate change?’

Note that I’m not asking what we can do. We have an old mind for an old world, and cannot deal with global issues, especially if it means foregoing our quotidian comforts.

When gas prices go up, do you hear any cheering for less car journeys and lower greenhouse gas emissions?

How many humans would put up with a two-hour daily electricity cut so we can save energy?

The exact same considerations apply to air travel, beef consumption, and other potential pathways for mitigation.

Humans act short-term, which is how politicians win elections—no ‘good’ politician is up for a plan that only works in the medium term, long after he’s voted out for inconveniencing our daily life. The planet, on the other hand, acts long-term.

Earth’s reaction will be profound, lasting, tragic, and unforgiving.

Good job we won’t be around to see it.

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

Arabs and Harrods

October 25, 2022

I’m sitting at a departure gate in Qatar at two in the morning. Around me are a multitude of Vietnamese, yakking excitedly.

Whenever I go through Doha, it’s always the middle of the night, but the airport is a gigantic, pulsing, sleepless place.

Like most of the Gulf states, the engine that moves Qatar is immigration—this is where the poor of Asia come to work, whether it’s building football stadiums or checking boarding passes.

The lines above were written just before I got on a plane—one week ago—and I’m picking up again in Saigon.

Every fishing village has a temple to protect the men who go out to sea—across the water it’s called the Nan Hai, or South China Sea, but you’d get into a lot of trouble calling it that here.

It’s the rainy season, and last night the skies opened, as if Buddha himself drew the curtains to let the bolts of lightning strike. I sat in a restaurant on the Mekong, watching the water hyacinth drift by in clumps and mounds as thunder crashed all around. The ceiling above was corrugated zinc and I wondered just how good a lightning conductor separated me from a charcoal grill.

Vietnam is very different from its neighbors—people here are very focused and it took me just a day to understand why so many products are Made in Vietnam—yesterday I went into an office at midday and found it completely empty, only to discover the place was almost full but the workers were snatching a post-lunch snooze under their desks.

Although the official name is Ho Chi Minh city, everyone sees it as Saì Gòn. As soon as you get into town, you know you’re somewhere special.

Scooters have a dedicated lane where they ride six abreast, but occasionally the cement walls part and a swarm of Vespa clones descends on you from a cross-street.

A few tunes from Vietnam’s Bob Dylan, Trinh Cong Son. Unlike his erstwhile namesake, this Bob Son does not have ‘a voice like sand and glue.’

Saigon has a well-deserved fun-town reputation going right back to the French days and it certainly catered to US servicemen during the Vietnam War—when the GIs weren’t migrating to Bangkok R&R in Soi Cowboy.

I was told by a friend that the Vietnamese were unassuming, friendly people, small in stature and big in heart. But it is worth remembering they defeated both the Chinese and the Americans.

“And don’t forget the French,” I said.

She smiled. “Oh, even the English managed that!”

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

Knight Moves

September 25, 2022

Chess got sexy during the pandemic when Queen’s Gambit was released by Netflix.

Gambit comes from the Italian word gambetto, meaning to trip someone up. Leg in Italian is gamba—in Spanish and Portuguese it means prawn, which means that the popular Spanish dish gambas al ajillo literally means garlic legs—but I digress.

The term gambit was defined in 1561 by Ruy López, a Spanish catholic priest—it represents a sacrifice made by one player in order to gain a strategic advantage—but it is documented as a chess opening at least since 1490, around the time Bartolomeu Dias returned from his voyage to the Cape of Good Hope.

Ruy López ater beating Leonardo di Bona. Sitting opposite the priest is King Philip II of Spain, later to become Philip I of Portugal.

Through the centuries, chess remained a game where two opponents pit their wits against each other—may the best man win. I chose my phrasing carefully—I can feel my female readers narrowing their eyes at this outrageous sexism.

In all my life, I’ve only ever met a handful of women who played chess, which has always perplexed and saddened me—chess is a Machiavellian game, and ladies are at least as scheming and unscrupulous as men—the fair sex should be extremely good at chess.

The gender statistics are awful: there are at present one thousand seven hundred and twenty-one chess grandmasters, of which only thirty-nine are women—about two percent.

So, yes… for millennia—since the VIth century, in fact—chess has been a man’s game.

But in 1996, all that changed—that was the year Russian world champion Gary Kasparov was beaten by a computer. The machine was called Deep Blue, and it was manufactured by IBM—it now seems that the reason Kasparov was beaten was because of a software bug—the computer got confused and made a sacrifice—a gambit.

Nowadays, a fifty buck app can beat a grandmaster—I have a free app on my cellphone that regularly trounces me—it’s downright insulting.

If you don’t play chess, you probably can’t associate the game to emotion—but you’re wrong, there is a palpable tension between the players and body language counts—and tension leads to error.

Despite the fact that humans are now whipped by machines, we still organize tournaments that pit two players against each other—but now machines are getting in on the act.

Top players all use chess simulators to practice and improve—a bit like pilots use flight simulators or tennis players use ball machines.

But machines have as usual been appropriated by humans to dirty work—again, I choose my words carefully, for the latest tale involves the use of vibrating anal beads.

If you google those three words you’re led to sites touting ‘bondage for beginners’ and other astounding pursuits—and since any kind of colonic insertion is anathema to me, I have so far focused only on beads used for external adornment.

To avoid being plagued by anal advertising after spending a few minutes researching this stuff, I turned to DuckDuckGo, a faithful friend for private browsing—recommended.

My findings are multiple, much like the orgasms that are apparently enhanced if you like to wear your beads on the inside. Amazon sells them—I’m always amazed they don’t sell wine, there’s a Mormon vibe there—and they caution you to ensure you check your outlets for voltage, like the good stewards they are.

Magnus Carlsen is the current world chess champion. Recently, the defeat of the Norwegian grandmaster by 19-year old U.S. player Hans Niemann sparked a vibrant (sorry) debate on whether the young American was using anal beads to receive instructions on his moves.

Strenuous denials have ensued, but whatever the outcome, social media embraced the story—and suddenly added an erotic dimension to dull image of top-level chess matches.

Whether or not the vibrating beads were the weapon of choice, the key is that humans are using AI to cheat at chess in much the same way they use steroids to enhance performance in athletics.

Will chess players need to be placed in a Faraday cage to electronically insulate them, or subjected to a compulsory body cavity search?

AI has opened up a new can of worms that cross-cuts many competitive areas previously the province of the human mind, and can now be ‘computer-assisted’—card games, board games, memory and knowledge quiz shows, the best angle or place on the court to place a tennis ball—the limit is human ingenuity and our unsurpassed capacity to do evil.

From a software bug to an anal plug, the road to cyborg is here.

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.

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.

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.

The Poorhouse

June 26, 2022

Over the last two hundred years, the poorhouse took in—I almost wrote cared for—the destitute and indigent folks, nobly trading work for food and shelter, but also featuring such choice perks as physical punishment.

In the United States, poorhouses were often associated with prison farms—you get the picture. Elsewhere, the lot of the poor was little better—and in much of the world, far worse—it still is.

It was this asymmetry between poor and rich, labor and capital, that fermented the ideas of Carl Marx and Friedrich Engels and ultimately led to over a century of social experiments with communism.

I read The Communist Manifesto around the same time I read Animal Farm and I could not reconcile my knowledge of evolutionary biology and primate behavior with a system where humans could not elevate themselves gainfully according to their capacity—inevitably, some animals would be more equal than others.

Communism would never be the solution to the woes of poor people if by increasing poverty in general those folks became marginally less poor. In practice, both hard-right and hard-left systems led to the same societal outcomes: the formation of small elites, different gradations of large communities of poor people, and general social malaise.

Wildcat capitalism and the control of the poor through low wages, lack of education, and physical violence—the mainstay of the Iberian peninsula in the times of Franco and Salazar—is (and was) always going to end badly.

Let us take another case. In the winter of 1847, in consequence of bad harvest, the most indispensable means of subsistence – grains, meat, butter, cheese, etc. – rose greatly in price. Let us suppose that the workers still received the same sum of money for their labour-power as before. Did not their wages fall? To be sure. For the same money they received in exchange less bread, meat, etc. Their wages fell, not because the value of silver was less, but because the value of the means of subsistence had increased.

These words, written by Uncle Carl almost two hundred years ago, ring a disturbing echo in the summer of 2022. The world is very different now but the consequences of price rises in energy and food—a double whammy for the latter due to both energy costs and scarcity—are similar.

Many of the families now struggling are heavily in debt—there’s a mortgage to pay and a orgy of assorted liabilities: energy bills, cell phones, vehicle installments, pre-booked holidays, credit card arrears…

I was going to play you the Ry Cooder version of this classic, but by the time I dried the tears from my eyes it had to be this one.

And the outcomes are fairly predictable.

Russia sells less gas in Europe and a lot more in China and India, which in a high energy cost market gives it ample ammunition, if you excuse the pun, to prosecute its ‘special operation.’

Grain has been weaponized—many African nations had long-standing relationships with the USSR—including all the Portuguese ex-colonies. The Soviets always projected themselves as a bastion of resistance against Western imperialism and Russia is now more than happy to sell grain to Egypt and other African nations in exchange for support for its actions in the Ukraine.

This is particularly easy because Russia is selling grain it doesn’t own. The story has been breaking in Western media in recent weeks—it tells a simple and eminently believable narrative, whereby wheat and other products stored in cities like Melitopol are being trucked to Crimea and then shipped through Istanbul to Turkish or North African ports in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It’s a real-life espionage thriller, with bulk carriers turning off their transponders in the middle of the Black Sea and satellite images showing Russian vessels docking in Syria.

Satellite images from Maxar allegedly show the Russian ship Matros Kozynich transporting stolen Ukrainian grain to Syria.

The Turks say they’re investigating Western claims, all the while stalling the admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO, and the politicians in Washington, Brussels, and London are busy figuring out the best way to respond, while all the time things at home unravel.

Britain kicked off the inevitable industrial action but strikes and protests are mushrooming in the West. People who live paycheck to paycheck and carry a mountain of debt are suddenly caught in a tipping point where they are simply unable to get by—it’s no longer a question of doing without everyday indulgences, it’s the inability to afford essential goods.

With inflation nudging ten percent in the US, EU, and Britain, politicians are listening to the voters and beginning to turn a deaf ear to Zelensky—this, of course (excuse the atrocious pun) is just grist to the vladimill.

Framing the Western drama is the terrible inequity between haves and have-nots, a surefire recipe for demagogues. And while the citizens of the EU break under ten percent inflation, Turkey registered 73.5% in the last year.

The global consequences of this relatively small war are already breathtaking and will continue to worsen.

Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live.

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

Food Chess

May 21, 2022

It’s one of my favorite games—chess that is, without the food bit.

Perhaps it’s because it mimics life in so many ways. The subtlety of feminism, where the queen is the most powerful piece on the board, and the king is just an impotent fugitive, skulking behind his minions.

The game is non-linear—a pawn can deliver the coup-de-grace, or turn into a queen (there’s a kind of gay twist there), and whoever dreamed up the knight moves really was a wizard.

And possibly the most important message—life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans—played well, chess is full of surprises.

My father taught me to play when I was eight or nine, and after a few months I could easily beat him, so I cast around for other partners—almost anyone who came to the house was challenged to a game.

Some years later, Bobby Fischer came along and beat Boris Spassky for the world title—that and the numerous books I had on chess made me aware of the Russian obsession with the game.

To build my bridge to food chess, I must now address food. Again, a Russian obsession, made clear in its relationship with Ukraine over a period of centuries—this means that the use of grain in the national interest is unsurprising.

Whether or not the Russian chess brain worked out the play beforehand, the fact is that the sequence:

Invasion of Ukraine -> Resistance -> International sanctions -> Arms supplies to Ukraine -> Boycott of products -> Application of the Magnitsky Act -> Stalling of Russian occupation -> Global shortage of wheat -> Fuel scarcity -> Inflation spike -> Use of food as a veppon… is a classic sequence of chess moves.

The Americans protest that Western sanctions were carefully calibrated to exclude fertilizer and agricultural goods, in order to allow continued export of grain and other foodstuffs and avoid disrupting the world order—they’re missing the point.

A chart from the US agricultural publication FarmdocDaily shows some worrying numbers on the West’s dependence on Russian ammonia and potassium—the data shown are for Brazil.

Russia, China, and a host of other countries do not play by the rules—the law of the jungle is all that matters—if Putin’s perception is that the world will suffer as a consequence of the protracted Ukrainian ‘special operation’, and if he attributes this protraction to US arms supplies to the enemy, then the logical move is to broaden the suffering as a means to apply pressure.

Food chess has devastating consequences—the Mid-East and Africa have been hard hit, and food insecurity will have knock-on effects on civil unrest, war, and immigration to Europe. The US is feeling similar pressures as impoverished Central and South American nationals trek north to the Yankee El Dorado.

The Russians know that supply-chain issues are hitting the West where it hurts—the vote—and they are hoping the populations of Western countries will react timorously by weakening their politicians; in time, the world will adjust to a new order, thinks Uncle Vlad, where sanctions are relaxed and military aid decommissioned.

In this new world, Putin will export the U-grain, prices will come down, and the former breadbasket of the USSR will effectively become the breadbasket of Russia. The new Russian province will be docile, Western voters will have forgotten the inconvenient truths of exile and murder of millions, and all will be well.

Contrary to the oil and renewables discussion, there is no alternative to grain. Food production is limited by thermodynamics—and now climate change further complicates matters.

So who has the wheat? North America. Europe also produces plenty of cereals. Elsewhere, it’s more patchy: India and China are significant producers, and Argentina also stands out.

But Africa and the rest of South America are in big trouble—with serious indirect consequences for Europe and North America.

So here’s how one scenario plays out: Russia captures the Ukrainian Black Sea ports, stopping the Ukraine from exporting grain and vegetable oils. The war is a Mexican standoff. The Ukrainian economy collapses and can survive only on permanent Western life support. Oil prices continue prohibitive and Europeans and Americans vote with their feet. Africa starves even more than usual and South America follows suit. The situation can only be resolved by NATO action in the Ukraine—a prelude to nuclear war. Russia’s NATO neighbors, particularly Turkey, Poland, Germany and now also Finland and Sweden, are less than sanguine about that option.

A long game indeed.

Many books have been written about the chess endgame. It’s noble to win when the board is half full, but if it comes to that, it’s necessary to win when the board is almost empty—and that’s an art form.

In life, as in chess, fifty moves is a stalemate.

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


%d bloggers like this: