Archive for the ‘Finance’ Category

Paradigm

September 26, 2020

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

More palindromic than scatological. Perhaps scatodromic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stressed?Desserts.

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

The Now People

September 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are b

Why are bees so important

Why are bones good for dogs

Why are f

Why are flies attracted to me

Why are farts so funny

Why are p

Why are Portuguese so short

Why are Pisces so good in bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queue Who?

September 5, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know all this because you believe in Q.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless you, Bob.

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

SCIENCE IS TRUTH.

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

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

Work

August 22, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Wind

August 16, 2020

History is a description of events—children learn about wars, revolutions, occupations, discoveries… In the process, they learn about kings and queens, tyrants and dictators, generals and admirals—the traits and personality of the people who defined and executed the actions.

A good book on history is a joy to read—this summer I’ve been enjoying Putin’s People, by veteran journalist and Russia-watcher Catherine Belton. The author is a soft-spoken, gentle lady, with a ready smile—the book, on the other hand, is a tour de force, which describes Putin’s rise to power from his days as a KGB agent in Dresden, East Germany, to his present-day role as a disrupter of European unity, promoter of Brexit, and Trump puppeteer, aka Trumpeteer.

The revelations on the orange man come about naturally, following a pattern of careful research evident throughout the book—Russia is run by the FSB, heavy-hitters from the KGB have replaced the Yeltsin-era oligarchs, and mountains of black cash have moved west.

This money is used for personal gain, but it is also the stuff of political influence. Belton describes how Russia agnostically funds Syriza and the French Front National, diametrically opposite sides of the political spectrum—anything for a bit of mayhem.

The final part of the book, which describes how Russian money poured into the US through real estate, bailing Trump out of bankruptcy, sheds more light on the entanglements of the (soon to be ex) US president than the Muller report.

This is no lightweight kiss-and-tell tale a la Michael Wolff or Michael Cohen—as you might expect from a financial journalist, this is heavy on detail—and horribly chilling.

At one point, Tchigirinsky, one of the many sinister characters portrayed by Ms. Belton, says, ‘An old Soviet dream that Europe, left without US military support, would dissolve into battle between its nation states, could even become reality. “Then there will be nothing left but for the Russians to come and take all the women.”‘

European and North American societies are rules-based, but the forces that wish to destroy the Western way of life are not. Russia and China, and totalitarian societies in general, are rule-based, and citizens of democratic nations cannot begin to appreciate the difference.

Maybe we just don’t care, as we thumb our way through Instagram and Twitter, wasting our hours away on complete banality. Life is made up of those hours, and there aren’t all that many.

Seven hundred and fifty thousand—that’s what you’ve got for an average life, but if you deduct one third for sleep you’re down to half a million—one by one, it hardly matters, there seem to be so many left, but believe me, it creeps up on you.

However you spend your time—which is why I’m so grateful you spend a little of it here with me—the Western way of life is incomparably better than the alternatives.

One of the bizarre sides to this is that Russians recognize the quality of life the West affords its citizens, which poses the question: why do they want to destroy it?

Londongrad, or Moscow-on-Thames, as the U.K.’s capital has become known, Paris, and Berlin are greatly admired by wealthy Russians as places to live in and have fun. Tourists flock to these cities, and arrive in droves in southern Spain to enjoy the sun, the food, and the beaches.

What does Russia want? What it has always wanted. It can be summed up in one word—empire.

This is a vertical society, where freedom has always been absent. After generations of tsars, there were three generations of communist rule, and now Putin perpetuity—journalists are shot or imprisoned, enemies are poisoned.

The only thing that has kept Western borders intact so far is NATO, and the implicit threat from America of retaliation for any action in Europe.

The return of America to normality with Biden’s election will throw a spanner in the works for Putin, which is why Russia is so desperate to see more of Trump—as much as Americans and Chinese are keen to see the back of him, although for quite different reasons.

Because America is a democracy—although a sorely tested one—the tipping point has not been reached.

A far more interesting question is who will succeed Putin when the hour comes, and what consequences that will have for Russian foreign policy.

If there’s one thing about dictators, they don’t like successors.

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

Homo Puppy

July 25, 2020

I sat in the dentist’s chair, surrounded by all sorts of anti-COVID devices—it felt like the high-security Ebola ward in some dystopian movie.

Dentists are at high risk of contracting coronavirus, or any contagious respiratory disease, for that matter; any operation involves multiple water droplets, just the kind of environment these little viral fuckers enjoy—the invisible enemy, as the orang-u-tan calls them—obviously never heard of the electron microscope.

By the way, if you want to take the Montreal Cognitive Test and see if you’re as smart as the US president (you may even qualify as a stable genius, otherwise known as a clever horse), go ahead—the test was developed to flag early dementia, and is abbreviated to MOCA.

In Portuguese, moca is a slang word for penis—actually for a rather large protuberance, which in English would probably qualify as a whanger—as opposed to a wiener, which does suggest a baby sausage. You can take a dick test in Portuguese also—and, to my delight, they also call it MOCA on the sheet—but it may not mean the same in Brazilian Portuguese.

But I digress—I was telling you I never thought cleaning your teeth could be hazardous to your health. When you sit with your mouth open in jaw-numbing pain while an army of steel and plastic rampages inside it, you’re an easy target for one-way chitchat (so should that just be chit?)—it must be like having a Finnish husband—not a lot of conversation.

A Finn picks up an English colleague at Helsinki airport, loads the bags into the Volvo, and drives three hours in pitch black to a remote log cabin—all in total silence, not a word exchanged. On the table is a bottle of vodka, which the Finn uncorks, and two tall glasses, which he fills to the brim. The cork goes into the roaring fire in the corner—the Englishman sighs—it’s going to be a long night.

With true British forbearance, he takes a deep breath and raises his glass. “Cheers!”

The Finn raises an eyebrow. “Are we here to talk or are we here to drink?”

Despite this, Finns are apparently the happiest people in the world—maybe they just don’t tell you they’re miserable, because they never talk—apparently you can now rent a Finn to cheer you up—you’ll find this particularly enjoyable if you like a bit of peace and quiet.

My dentist recommended a book on solidarity, and since kindness is a word we seldom hear these days, I uttered a choking sound of agreement. The general argument is that humans are successful because of their social skills, interactions, and friendliness, rather than the usual narrative of aggression and competitive advantage.

The truth is, it’s both. There are anectodal accounts of soldiers refusing to fire their weapons, ranging from the American Civil War to World War II, and many other examples of social actions, including the Danish push to save their Jews from the Nazis.

There’s also a lot of cruelty—we see this everyday, from the Syrian deserts to the reported ethnic massacres in China.

The huge wealth disparity in society has prompted many studies on poverty, its causes, its consequences, and its remedies.

The author of Humankind presents an interesting take on the subject, at a time of ever increasing gaps.

To put this into historical perspective, consider the following: prior to the renaissance, Western Europe was divided into rich (nobles and high clergy) and poor (laborers and low clergy)—it’s true that there were three estates, but in financial terms they reduced to two.

Political pressure gave an emerging middle class a seat at the table, and through the centuries the seats multiplied, until that class (the commons) played an increasingly important role in governing nations—’professional’ classes such as lawyers, accountants, and doctors garnered increasing respect, and that translated into power.

Now we’re going back to medieval times—through a combination of financial asymmetry, artificial intelligence, and globalization, that middle class is rapidly disappearing—the hourglass effect.

But instead of re-balancing society, we’re providing compensation at the extremes. That makes an analysis of human kindness and friendliness, as a weapon to improve society, a very pleasant prospect.

One of the neatest experiments on the selection of a social gene deals with domestication—in the 1950s, Soviet scientists performed trials to turn the silver fox into a household pet.

The animals are bred for pelts in Siberia, and must be approached with extreme care—like other species of fox, they are cunning and aggressive.

Selecting for social traits—in essence friendliness—was all it took to turn a highly aggressive species into a gentle, tail-wagging creature.

The transition from Neandarthal to Homo puppy follows a similar path—our social nature has brought us to all the good places we know today.

Humans have never been healthier, wealthier, or safer, despite all the challenges discussed—yet every time we turn on the news or flick through Twitter, the emphasis is on all the awful things—as a consequence, most of us are brainwashed to believe we are going through the worst times yet.

The solution? Easy. Provided by populists everywhere. Instant happiness!

The Chinese have a proverb for that one too.

Be careful what you wish for, it may come true.

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

Deposition

July 12, 2020

There are six monarchies in the European Union.

Back in the days of the EU28, The most emblematic monarchy, and certainly the one that had most Netflix seasons, was the British royal family—a source of parody as far back as I can remember.

Some of the European monarchies are so self-effacing as to be almost invisible externally. I doubt that many Europeans could tell you whether Denmark is a monarchy or a republic, and the same is probably true of Belgium or the Netherlands.

Kingdoms are a paradox for me, having grown up in a republic. On the one hand, European kings have been institutionally neutered, so the practical consequences of having a head of state who is elected or one chosen by god are similar, at least in systems where the executive power lies with an elected government. On the other, divine right has always struck me as an aberration.

In countries such as France, which have a presidential system, power is vested in one man—this requires strong institutions to ensure balance and equity. if there’s one thing humans discovered over the last three thousand years in their quest for social structure, it is that you cannot put too much power in the hands of a single person.

Put another way: if you give someone power, they will abuse it.

The political castration of the European monarchy does project the power of the prime minister—in the UK, Bojo is not concerned with trivialities such as presidential vetoes, as the head of government of a European republic might be.

The monarchy generates affection, even love, whereas presidents don’t—hardly anyone knows about the family of the head of state of Austria or Portugal, but the comings and goings of blue blood are a source of constant discussion—almost as if their antics are happening in your own family, or to a close friend.

The Brit royals supply an endless source of gossip—internal plots and power grabs, financial scandals, adultery, and even the recent Epstein drama—plenty of material for the coming Netflix n’chill season.

Spain, and particularly the ex-king of Spain, comes a close second. I’m not sure the Spanish love their royals as the English do, and the country has twice been a republic—it’s first bout lasted exactly one year, when the king was replaced by a dictator in 1874—not a huge improvement on the status quo.

On April 14th, 1931, a second, ill-fated republic was born. It led to the gruesome Spanish Civil War—less than four generations ago, for anyone who thinks this is ancient history! Many young people these days are lucky enough to have a grandparent in their eighties, and they will recall these events from childhood memories.

Franco, who was a big part of my youth, took power in 1939 and became the longest-serving dictator in modern European history, from 1939 until 1975. In 1947, the Caudillo declared that he was in fact a regent for the Spanish king—in so doing, he took a leaf out of history—many an illegitimate ruler has used the umbrella of regency to govern.

In the meantime, Prince Juan Carlos was educated in Spain, after some resistance from Franco. In 1975, just after the Portuguese revolution, Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias finally ascended to the Spanish throne.

Franco’s hold on power was over. In next-door Portugal, where the new king of Spain had spent his childhood, revolution was in the street.

Demonstration in central Lisbon for gay rights in 1974. Revolutionary street art, seen on walls that had never been touched by graffiti, was often very funny.

The anarquists, known locally as Anarcas, had some of the funniest wall art, and certainly the most pithy sayings. Liberdade às sardinhas em lata, or freedom for tinned sardines, was one of them—another was Franco no espeto, a play on the phrase ‘chicken on the spit’, a local delicacy.

The concept of the ageing Spanish dictator on a rotisserie skewer was irresistible to a country with new-found freedom, rooting for its neighbors who were still imprisoned in the straightjacket of fascism.

Over the years, the Spanish king has been involved in a number of scandals, in true royal tradition. Several of these involved the fair sex—a Castilian Catedrático once told my father, lowering his voice to a stage whisper, “Los Borbones son muy mujerengos!

Whether or not that’s a general trait of the male members (excuse the pun) of the House of Bourbon, it certainly applied to Juan Carlos. Spain doesn’t have the tabloid enthusiasm of the British press, but of late the more ‘serious’ papers have been referring to the retired monarch’s ‘ex-friend’ Corinna Larsen.

The Spanish have a habit of dropping the hyphen, so the lady in question, once married into the aristocratic Wittgenstein family, is euphemistically referred in the Spanish press as the king’s examiga, or exfriend—the implication is she dropped more than a hyphen.

The scandal now consuming Spain provides some much-needed light relief from COVID-19, and adds some spicy seasoning to the whole affair.

It includes alleged threats to the examiga by the Spanish intelligence agency CNI, and more recently, revelations that Juan Carlos received a one hundred million dollar gift from Saudi Arabia’s king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, for his role in ‘facilitating’ a contract for a high-speed rail link between Mecca and Medina, known as AVE del desierto.

The project cost sixteen billion dollars, so a hundred mil is small potatoes—less than one percent—but the king apparently placed his gift in Switzerland, and subsequently used the money to help his examiga buy property. The lady in question allegedly told a prosecutor in 2018 that she received sixty-five million euros from the monarch—at the time still king of Spain—out of ‘gratitude and love.’

Now that’s a whole lotta love.

And it probably explains why the former king decided to step down in 2019.

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

Wonderful World

June 20, 2020

If you look for Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World—an absolutely wonderful song—you’ll find a whole page of Louis Armstrong’s homonymous tune, so you need to dig a little deeper.

Cooke goes through a series of school subjects and topics—I’ve always found the lyrics poignant and amusing, and when I play it I change the line ‘don’t know what a slide rule is for’ to ‘don’t know what a spreadsheet is for’, to reflect modern scholastic ignorance.

Toward the end, the young Sam Cooke informs us that he ‘don’t know much about the Middle Ages’, which is fair enough—no one does.

The Middle Ages are widely seen as a period of historical darkness, sitting somewhere between the end of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance, and no one is quite sure of the start and end dates.

We’re talking about a period that spans a thousand years—no mean feat. Between the Vth and XVth centuries, Europe lived through systematic violence and abuse—France came up with the three estates—clergy, nobles, and commoners—and that convenient concept (if you weren’t a peasant) was widely adopted.

The first two estates, clerics and nobility, were largely exempt from taxes—these were borne by the peasants—a movie that could never end well, as Marie Antoinette found out.

My first book was about the Age of Discovery, associated to the renaissance, and my account of the marvels of Portuguese naval exploration was followed by a book on the travails of Columbus, a man who is overrated in his achievements but not in the consequences of his discoveries—for centuries, the English, French, and Spanish preferred to fight their battles in the Americas and left Asia and Africa to the Portuguese, and to a lesser extent to the Dutch.

Now, I’m sinking back into the dark ages, the Hundred Years War, and the great lords of France—violent and intractable men who thought it shameful to die in your bed, and that adultery was the only true form of romantic love.

The nobility and its troubadours coined the term ‘courtly love’, and in De Amore (About Love) the XIIth century courtier Andreas Capellanus (the surname means chaplain!) wrote that ‘marriage is no real excuse for not loving’—part of this concept stems from the fact that nobles entered into arranged marriages to consolidate property, wealth, and power—love didn’t come into it.

My mentor is Barbara W. Tuchman, a lady who, like me, took up history and made it fun, and was criticized by professional historians who resented the inroads of an amateur and the easy and humorous style of her prose.

Tuchman died in 1989, on the cusp of digital discovery, and I am sure if she were still writing today she could report on amazing things—I could never have been a writer without the internet: it’s given me facts, made me friends, and opened doors.

In the medieval period, education was predicated on seven ‘liberal arts’, and I quote:

Grammar, the foundation of science; logic, which differentiates the truth from the false; rhetoric, the source of law; arithmetic, because ‘without numbers there is nothing’; geometry, the science of measurement; astronomy, the most noble of the sciences because it is connected with divinity and theology; and lastly music.

I find the choice as bizarre as the definitions—certainly science depends as much on mathematics as on the study of natural phenomena such as the flow of a river.

The question “How much water comes out of the Mississippi River?” has a standard answer: “As much as goes in.”

This may seem glib, but a complete answer requires an understanding of precipitation and evaporation, drainage basins and gravity flow, and percolation through the soil. After those topics are mastered, in other words with a working knowledge of geography, geology, and meteorology, a reasonable approximation can be produced without ever actually measuring the flow of the Mississippi.

The relationship between astronomy and religion is typical of the misconceptions of the era—God above was taken literally, and astronomers formulated deeply flawed models where the sun went round the earth and the atmosphere was a pathway to a set of seven heavens.

Medicine was not classed as a liberal art (duh) but considered analogous to music because its purpose was to promote the ‘harmony of the human body.’

History was straightforward and finite—the world began with Adam and Eve and would end with the second coming, which would be followed by judgement day. Perhaps that’s the genesis of the T-Shirt slogan ‘Look Busy, Jesus Is Coming’.

In the United States, creationists live by these rules, despite clear evidence to the contrary—they deny natural selection, and speculate on the end of the world based on opinions uncontaminated by facts.

Tuchman’s interpretation is that in a world of finite history leading to an examination on judgement day, there was no requirement for humans to improve themselves morally or socially in this world—that would come in the next. This is nicely captured in the song ‘The Weight’, where the narrator and Luke sit waiting for the judgement day.

 

My interest in the Medieval Period, which in many ways is paroxysmally boring, came from the present pandemic—I’ve avoided mentioning it so far, but it seems obvious that more’s-a-comin’—and in particular my interest in the Black Death.

It’s impossible to analyze the Middle Ages in Europe without considering the plague. The disease was first observed in October 1947, when a Genoese merchant ship full of dead and dying men anchored at Messina, Sicily. The ship had come from Caffa in Crimea, a trading post owned by Genoa—the town is now called Feodosia, after the old Greek name Theodosia—it was once part of the Greek empire.

Caffa was one of the world’s most important slave markets, and the bubonic plague arrived from the east, brought by the Mongolian Golden Horde.

Just as with COVID-19, the pestilence spread with great speed—slower due to the lack of globalization, faster due to the lack of hygiene and hospitals.

The Welsh talked about the ‘shilling under the armpit’, a reference to the egg-sized buboes (thus bubonic), or swellings, that appeared in the groin or armpit.

The buboes oozed blood and pus, and the skin quickly developed black splotches due to internal bleeding. The black blood that appeared in the lungs, sputum, urine, feces, and buboes gave the disease its name.

Europe lived in perplexity about many phenomena that are well understood today—which makes it all the more remarkable that cretins like the orange man and his tropical cousin refuse to act on that understanding.

To the medieval populace of Europe, the plague was the end of the world.

It was inevitable, in the religious fervor of the age, that the Jews would get blamed. As a consequence, well before the time of the Spanish Inquisition, widespread pogroms ensued.

Jews carried the plague from Toledo in little packets or a ‘narrow stitched leather bag’. These messengers brought with them rabbinical instructions for poisoning wells and springs. Many Jews were burned alive.

The word that best describes the Middle Ages in cruelty. Ignorance comes a close second.

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

Main Street

June 6, 2020

American folk music speaks of simple things: love, loss, the yen to up-and-go. Often, the travel is about running away—because deep down, those simple things aren’t simple at all.

Families made and broken, war and death, the call of the highway, the freight train, or the wild country—that’s Main Street.

Those are values people understand: a job, a place, watching a boy become a man, a girl turn into a woman…

So how did it all go so horribly wrong? What made simple things not matter?

I took a trip down memory lane to revisit the market meltdown of 2007-2008, a result of extraordinary institutional greed and regulatory neglect. On Wall Street, even traders who saw how fragile the system was continued pushing it, like a heroin addict who knows he’s killing himself but can’t stop.

My journey down that road began with an English trader of humble Pakistani origin and a book called Flash Crash by Bloomberg journalist Liam Vaughan.

Navinder Singh Sarao—Nav, to his mates—was accused by the US Department of Justice of cheating the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or CME, and causing the stock market flash crash of May 6th, 2010. The fact that he did it from the comfort of his own home, located in an immigrant neighborhood near London’s Heathrow Airport, was even more remarkable.

That got me into the fascinating world of automated trading—in other words, computers. Put it this way—if you trade shares manually, it’s like running the hundred meters in flippers.

As I revisited the sub-prime mortgage scandal of 2007 and 2008 that led to the worldwide collapse of the banking system, the bankruptcy of Lehman Bros., and the bailout of AIG—the world’s largest insurance company—by the federal government, all I could think about was venality and greed.

And what the fuck was an insurance company doing in the sub-prime housing market anyhow? Greed, greed, fucking greed!

At a speech in Houston in 2008, George W.Bush—an intellectual stalwart by today’s presidential standards—went off the record:

Wall Street got drunk, that’s one of the reasons I asked you to turn off the TV cameras. It got drunk and now it’s got a hangover. The question is how long will it sober up and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments.

When you look at the way things are going now, with Wall Street on a tear and Main Street in the ditch, it’s pretty clear the market is back swigging from the poisoned cup.

For a fee, brokers supply a mechanism called web services that allows anyone with the money or the know-how to design and implement their own trading strategies—that’s the way the game is played in the new millenium.

In the lead-up to the mortgage crisis, traders were looking at the most bizarre stuff. This is how rogue trader Mark Wendale sums it up in my 2013 book, Atmos Fear.

“You got property goin’ up a steady six points or more, re-fi in suburbia is hotter than wife swapping. Yup, we’re good for a while yet,” said Wendale, the consummate trader.

Only one or two of the more clear-headed understood that the ship was headed for the rocks. After all, selling mortgages to sub-prime clients, charging the interest on only half the principal and then adding the unpaid part to the total owed, so that the new homeowner’s debt went up over the years instead of down, was bound to end in tears. But for pretty much everyone in finance, it was boom time. Dot com all over again.

“Some of those products we reviewed, I rather think they might put one in a spot of hot water.”

More Brit pinstripe-speak.

Wendale was now trading CDOs squared, and even cubed, where the product was supported on an identical product, making it increasingly difficult to grasp what the exposure was.

The height of bizarre, both in name and purpose, was called the Gaussian copula—I’ll spare you the sex jokes.

In 2000, David Li, a Wall Street mathematician employed by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce—a touch of the Raj, methinks—worked out a formula to co-correlate probabilities, and the formula became a Wall Street darling.

But the formula was flawed—in worked well in some circumstances, in others it was disastrous.

Don’t blame Gauss—he’s one of my heroes. At three years old, Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss was correcting his father’s arithmetic. At seven, he came up with a lovely way to add consecutive numbers.

If you want to add the numbers between one and a hundred by hand (or mentally), it’s a tedious job. Bear in mind we’re in 1784, when the child prodigy was seven—no calculator. No Excel.

One of my math teachers told me that all good mathematicians are lazy—that’s why they find quick ways to solve problems.

Young Carl realized that 1 + 100 = 101. No prizes there. But he also figured out that 2 + 99 = 101. Better. And 3 + 98. And 4 + 97. And 50 + 51. Wow!

So, after he discovered that every convergent pair added to 101, he understood that 101 multiplied by 50 (one hundred numbers gives fifty pairs) gave the result he was after: 5050.

Pretty cool.

I played around with his trick and worked up a formula. Then I tested it in Excel. I’m sure any mathematician will laugh—this is old hat. But it made me happy, and the Gauss formula will add any list of consecutive numbers, for instance 102346 to 2487371. Instantly.

The answer is 3 088 271 188 821. This would take you a while in Excel. On a calculator, if you entered a number every five seconds, never made a mistake, and didn’t sleep, it would take you twenty-three days.

If you want to try a simple example, add the consecutive numbers from 1 to 4. Gives you 10. So does (1+4) X 2 (there are four numbers in the series, or two pairs). Try 3 to 6. That’s 9 X 2, or 18. I am easily amused.

What I don’t find nearly as amusing is the market rock ‘n roll. That’s how simple became complicated, and how we all got screwed.

Greed and irresponsibility is what I see. Trading mountains of mickey mouse money leveraged on virus bailouts.

I’ll leave you with a country tune, maybe we’ll get back to our roots.

Kind of crazy, with summer coming on, but all I see is black clouds.

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

Reboot

May 31, 2020

Anyone who’s been through a life change knows exactly how this year feels right now.

The kind of change I’m talking about is a crappy thing—a battle against cancer, the death of a child, total financial loss, an acrimonious separation, a jail sentence. A good plan for life is to minimize the chance of such things happening—but of course they do.

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
         For promis’d joy!

Robert Burns, November 1785

I’m sorry to hurl a Scottish poem at you without warning—I always had a hard time with poetry, unless someone put it to music—then it becomes lyrics and all is well.

Interpreted: The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray and leave us nothing but grief and pain instead of promised joy.

Nils Lofgren put the concept into a song called Black Books that has one of my favorite acoustic solos—it’s a very dark tune, which earned it a slot in Season 2 of The Sopranos.

The main problem with a reboot is that things never seem the same—what the pundits like to call the ‘new normal.’

To a lot of folks, it seems like the first half of the year simply disappeared. Vanished. Travel plans. Weddings. Vacations. Puff! All gone.

2020 is about to reboot.

I see people around me coming out of this in a kind of daze—you start to do stuff but you’re not used to it any more. It happens to me. I don’t have the appetite to get on a plane—it’s become a big deal instead of an everyday thing.

You have questions. If I go, will restaurants be open? Will I be comfortable riding a subway or a bus? In a meeting or a conference, will I want to sit in a small, packed room?

Eating out feels weird. For about three months I’ve been eating at home, playing guitar over my lunch break, and I’ve adjusted to it. I like it. One quarter of a year. My days have been (over)stuffed with Webex and Zoom. I don’t like that, but I deal with it.

I’ve started going out. All the waiters wear masks. Every place is like Zorro’s trattoria. I’m not sure how I’d prefer it. With or without. But it feels weird. I sense it all around me—every table—it makes me uncomfortable.

I can only compare it to the austerity years of a decade ago. And some things linger since then—I still don’t buy newspapers—I found another way, and I doubt I’ll go back.

There is much speculation on the economic recovery—will it be v-shaped, as the orang-u-tan preaches? Or perhaps u-shaped, as many others believe? If there’s a second peak, maybe it will be w-shaped. And there are another twenty-three letters in the alphabet—it could be an m.

The key difference between this plague and the previous ones is connectivity—in 1918, commercial air travel was a millionaire’s pastime, now it’s everyone’s god-given right. A century ago, hotels and restaurants were scarce—there was no such tradition, and there was no disposable income—now there’s Airbnb.

I’m worried it’ll be people like me who’ll stop the recovery—we’ve changed, and all it took was three months. John Le Carré made a revelation about his father, a celebrated English conman called Ronald Cornwell; after being released from jail, Ronnie would stop in front of a closed door waiting for someone to open it—we are easily formatted.

There seem to be a lot of people like me—I was supposed to be in Maine right now, but instead I ended up on a video conference this week with twenty people—two whole days, it was like pulling teeth. Someone was delayed due to a traffic jam. I asked, “What’s a traffic jam?”

Once in a while, one of the tiny squares on the screen would bemoan our predicament. “Won’t it be great when we can meet again in person? At next year’s meeting…” As the ever-hopeful business owners tirelessly tell us, we are social animals. We’re gregarious, we love company.

But despite these moans, not one person was able to suggest a meeting venue and date. I suspect that if they had, others would have been quick to point out that ‘well, at this stage…’

People ask me about flights and I tell them that I now own a collection of vouchers. I have no appetite to add to my collection, particularly since the vouchers all need to be used within one year.

Memorial Day weekend was supposed to mark the start of economic recovery in America—throngs packed the beaches and citizens went on camera with the usual fallacies. The president doesn’t wear a mask, so I don’t either, said a youngster from Alabama. We all have to die of something, said an older man sitting in his deck chair.

That weekend, the one hundred thousand mark was closing in—by Wednesday, May 27th, the virus that populists invariably labeled ‘a small, seasonal flu’ blasted through the barrier—as I write it’s already three percent higher.

Around that time, fueled by tweets, America erupted. Lots of folks going out, but not on a shopping spree—the flavor du jour was looting. The orange man was quick to capitalize on the tragic death of George Floyd—nothing like a spot of rape and pillage to divert attention from the pestilence.

The poor are dying from ‘rona, the rich are taking a staycation. And many of those poor are black—there’s no evidence of health links to minorities, it’s spurious correlation.

Spurious correlation

This excellent (but spurious) correlation (r=0.955) between train wrecks (how appropriate) and oil imports reminds us of something every lady knows—statistics are like men: properly manipulated, they’ll do anything you want. View more wonderful stats here.

As an American friend told me this week, the level of support for the orang-u-tan, given his lack of condemnation for such abhorrent acts, suggests racism in the US may be endemic in half the population—who knew?

America is now truly going through ‘fire and fury’. Instead of campus protests, hordes of youngsters who were confined at home have suddenly been let loose by social media and are busy tearing the place apart. Effective protests have a start and an end point, and a collective goal—riots, on the other, are a typical consequence of the madness of crowds.

As successive cities descend into chaos, the stark consequences of populism are on display. The great nation of the United States of America has become a populist plaything.

And now it truly is broken.

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


%d bloggers like this: