Archive for the ‘Historical novels’ Category


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.


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

The Crazy Islands

September 19, 2020

Perhaps because of the travel freeze, I’ve been dreaming about a faraway setting for my next book—it’ll be a historical novel, building on The India Road and Clear Eyes, and will be set in the sixteenth century.

By the early 1500s, Spain was enthusiastically moving towards the New World—by the turn of the century, Columbus had completed his third voyage to the misnamed Indies—while Portugal expanded its reach in the old world.

Cabral sailed for India in 1500, ‘discovering’ Brazil for Portugal in the process. As I wrote in Clear Eyes, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón discovered Brazil in 1499—there is evidence he landed in Pernambuco, a state in the northeast. However, the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed five years earlier, meant that the new territory was on the Portuguese side of the meridian line splitting the unknown world between the two Iberian nations.

The Wikipedia entry for Pinzon credits him with the discovery of Brazil, whereas the entry for Pernambuco categorically states it was discovered by the Portuguese. This is one of the weaknesses of Wikipedia—when you jump to the second page from the first, the narratives don’t match.

Vasco da Gama sailed again for India in 1502 to consolidate the ‘hostile trading’ approach—gunboats were the essence of his persuasive powers to force the locals to grant  trade monopolies to Portugal.

My main reasons for writing Clear Eyes were to debunk the myth that Columbus was a visionary mariner and to provide a balanced view of the two most important seafaring nations of the time, both located in the Iberian Peninsula. I believe it matters that the whole eastern endeavor was well organized and took decades to plan, whereas the attempt to find a western passage to the Indies was haphazard at best.

The most likely setting for my new book is Indonesia—the Portuguese were most certainly there, as evidenced by words such as gereja (church), jendela (window), and sepatu (shoe). Loanwords that appear in other languages are the linguistic equivalent of a genetic marker and tend to be used for concepts or items that are foreign to the country—churches were certainly a XVIth century novelty in Java and Sumatra, and given the climate, windows and shoes likewise.

Of course, the Portuguese were in search of trade, and their quest took them to the spice islands of Maluku, in eastern Indonesia.

The English, with their natural ear for other languages, mispronounced them Moluccas (Molukken in Dutch), but the etymology is clear—these were the crazy islands (Malucas) of the Portuguese, where the ship’s compass behaved in erratic fashion.

The Ilhas Malucas, from a map drawn in 1613 by Dutch cartographer Johannes Blaeu.

But is that really the origin of the name? The Arabs were in Indonesia from the XIVth century onward—which partly explains why Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation—and the spice islands were apparently called Jazirat al-Muluk, the Island of Kings.

Which raises another interesting question: does the Portuguese word for crazy come from the Arab word for king? In Arabic, crazy is مجنون (majnun). Google Translate spells ‘king’ as malik, but clearly malik and muluk are the same word, just rendered differently in the European alphabet.

The crazy islands are the only places in the world where nutmeg and cloves are grown—in XVIIth century London, ladies held an orange stuck with cloves to their delicate nose to ward off the disgusting smell of running sewers.

Indonesia is a fascinating paradox, so I won’t be short of great material, all of it true—and often much stranger than fiction. As an example, Thailand is renowned for it’s third gender—generally called ladyboys—but Indonesia also has an abundance of transgender folks, a perplexing characteristic for a Muslim country.

In Bahasa Indonesia, the word for woman is wanita, and the word for man is pria—transgenders are termed warias, a contraction of the two words. Many warias are sex workers, but other jobs are also popular—when President Obama lived in Jakarta as a youngster, his nanny, Edie, was a waria.

Given the polygamous nature of Islam, some men have both female wives and waria—a somewhat unusual arrangement in the penis-count department.

One of the main differences between waria and ladyboys is that whereas in Thailand, for many transgenders an aspirational aim is to save money for a sex change, warias are not that keen.

The main reason is religious.

We believe we were born as men and must return to god as men.

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.


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.

Tears of Salt

August 29, 2020

Cod is one of my recurring themes—over the last decade, I wrote three or four articles on the enduring battle between Man and the elements—centuries of expeditions to the fishing grounds of the north Atlantic.

The Portuguese have fished bacalhau in Newfoundland since the XVth century—the earliest records are from 1472, when the Azorean captain Joao Vaz Corte Real first made landfall, christening the territory ‘Terra dos Bacalhaus.’

There are multiple stories of Portuguese journeys further west—and a statue of his son Gaspar in front of the confederation building in St. John’s. The Corte Real family were mariners and armadores—fleet owners—and in search of the lucrative cod grounds, it is entirely possible that the sons, or some of their captains, made landfall and explored parts of eastern Canada.

In these exploits, Joao Vaz and his two sons Miguel and Gaspar were covertly encouraged by the Perfect Prince, John II of Portugal, who was banned by the 1479 Treaty of Alcaçovas from securing overseas possessions north of the Canaries—Las Islas Afortunadas.

All this took place well before the time of John Cabot, the man credited with the European discovery of Canada; there is a strong possibility that the Bay of Fundy was named by the Azorean explorers—with a maximum depth of one hundred nine fathoms, the name  Baía Funda (Deep Bay) is most appropriate—phonetically, the English pronunciation of the two words is practically identical.

Almost all the cod fishermen from mainland Portugal came from one of three locations: the southeastern Algarve, particularly the area around Fuseta, the central town of Aveiro, and the northwestern village of Vila do Conde, near Oporto.

Aveiro has been famous for centuries for its salt—sal, in Portuguese—from which the word salary derives. Considered the best in Europe, it was essential over the centuries for preserving food—and thus surviving winter—prior to refrigeration.

To the south of Aveiro, the small fishing village of Ílhavo was the main source of men who joined the yearly campaigns run by the Salazar government for fishing the Grand Banks.

Some of the men who spent six to eight months of the year fishing for bacalhau in Newfoundland and Greenland, using tiny boats called dories.

The council built a museum to honor the Campanha do Bacalhau, and they have a digital site where you can find any fisherman by name—because of the national obsession with administration, particularly during the control-freak period of fascism, a very complete database is available, which even tells you whether each person had a catholic wedding!

Surnames in Portugal, as in other countries, are regionally distributed—in the photo I selected, most of the fellows called Manuel Pata are from Ilhavo. One of them was a ship captain—I wonder if you can guess from the face which one. If you search for Guerreiro (Warrior), almost all the men are from the Algarve.

The museum is of course conditioned by COVID-19, but it remains open, and its main exhibits are in two adjacent halls, one of which houses a replica of the upper part of a two-mast schooner (lugre, in Portuguese)—although the ones that went on the campaigns that began in the 1930s were four-masters.

Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to board the vessel—I didn’t see any kids on my visit, but there’s nothing kids would remember better than scampering around on the huge deck.

Other parts of the display are less interesting, but next to the ticket office there’s an amazing metal sculpture of a cod—I spent some time trying to discover who made it, and how I can get one for myself—stay tuned.

A few of the old lugres have survived—the Creoula is a naval training ship, and the Santa Maria Manuela was bought and rebuilt by Portugal’s largest cod producer—it now belongs to a major food retailer.

The ship was named after the owner’s wife—she had sixteen kids, so maybe she had the patience of a saint.

Trawlers gradually replaced line fishing, and when the United Nations approved the Law of the Sea and the creation of Exclusive Economic Zones, the game was up.

Life was harsh on board the schooners, with men sleeping at the bow, two to a cot, for only a few hours a night. Fishing started at dawn, which during spring and summer at higher latitudes means 4 a.m., and work often ended only at midnight, by the time fish were salted, livers and tongues removed, gear repaired and stowed.

Brave men, escaping poverty, providing for their family, and paying a terrible price—many of the men were back on the ships every year, during which their children grew up without a father. Dories got lost at sea and in the fog—the Grand Banks are the foggiest place on earth.

Now, how about that captain?

He’s the young guy with the mustache in the bottom row.

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


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.

Land Ahoy!

August 9, 2020

I spent the week on a boat—a truly responsible vacation in these virus-ridden times—a couple of anchor lengths from the nearest vessel, no strangers around, about as self-isolated as you can get.

The boat was moored five hundred feet from shore, in about three fathoms of water, on the lee of a barrier island in southeast Portugal.

Around me, a number of Spanish yachts, escaping the confusion in their own country, and a few charter craft. At sea, your neighbors change all the time—some folks were day trippers from nearby marinas, others settled in for a few days.

The view from the top, taken with a drone hovering over the mooring area. The beach is just visible on the windward side of the barrier island.

Near my thirty-six footer, small bream meandered, and a dozen grey mullet appeared to live under the hull. Mullet have a varied diet: they’re very fond of detritus and thrive in pretty disgusting conditions—not my cup of tea—but they’re certainly popular in parts of North America.

Years ago, I used to sail every few weeks in a small, open fishing boat on the great estuary of the Tagus—going out in the early morning, with the beautiful city of Lisbon to the northwest, and watching the sun rise over the water.

I’d head out to the tidal flats—about one third of the one hundred-twenty square miles of estuary are dry at low water—that once housed one of Europe’s most important oyster grounds; as we passed the main outlet ditch of the local brewery the smell of hops and malt was thick in the air—back in the day, the effluent went straight into the water.

When we had visitors on board—particularly women—the skipper would pound the hull with his boot and the mullet would start jumping. Invariably, a couple of large fish would leap into the boat, and someone would reach over and tip them back into the water.

The little fish that wandered around my houseboat prompted me to buy a rod—while I was at it, I bought a lure to try and jig some cuttlefish. I had a lot of fun messing around with both, but the fish managed to eat the bait rather than the hook—apparently mullet are particularly good at delicately removing worms or mussels from the line without touching the hook at all.

The boat had a rubber dinghy with an electric motor—barely powerful enough to oppose the current, but very ecological. The wealthy folks on the yachts were content to sunbathe on deck and occasionally lower a jet ski and shatter the calm—no one seemed keen on going ashore.

A COVID dream come true—empty beach for miles and miles.

The outer rim of the island never had anyone on it—you could close your eyes and imagine yourself cast away by pirates. One morning, far away to the west, a small group appeared, bent double near the waterline, picking surf clams. Near them, a fishing rod was buried into the sand, the line extending way out into the Atlantic.

On my last evening, the boat ran out of water—it was more of a nuisance than a problem, but it reminded me that the Portuguese sailors of The India Road were constantly faced with the challenge of shipping enough fresh water for the next leg of their journey.

The all-important refilling of the water barrels was known as the aguada—after Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, he dropped anchor at what is now Mossel Bay—the bay of mussels.

It was the third day of February, and the bay became known as Aguada de São Braz—the Portuguese sailors regularly named bays, capes, and rivers after saints, whereas the Spanish often used royalty.

The coastline therefore became a litany of holy men and women, all of whom had their own assigned day.

São Brás (Saint Blaise), in a painting from the Basilica of San Giulio, Italy.  This saint is particularly good for throat ailments—he might come in handy during these troubled times.

Today is Saint Theresa‘s day, so a Portuguese mariner during the XVth or XVIth centuries might well have named an African Cape or a Malayan island in her honor if the occasion arose.

A nautical chart from that period—and the Portuguese were renowned for their cartography at the time—presented a verifiable timeline that could be cross-checked against a ship’s log. These maps are therefore special, since they contain information about both time and space—and since points of interest were named by different expeditions, we can use the dates to validate the various journeys.

That’s why we’re certain that the first white man to set foot in South Africa, on February 3rd,1488, was Captain Bartolomeu Dias, the sailor who opened up the India Road.

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


August 1, 2020

It’s official—the summer vacation, that great European institution, has been beaten by a virus.

Today is the first of August, and a Saturday at that—throughout Europe, that means packed highways as tourists head south and immigrants head home—in case you’re not a local, both travel in the same direction.

But not this year.

Europe is suffering a second round of COVID-19 and politicians are battening down the hatches.

Both Americans and Europeans will forego their traditional holidays, or perhaps we should spell it for ego—politicians have truly screwed this one up, inflated by their egotistical notions of power and self-absorbed in the egoism of electioneering.

Instead, the power lies with the virus, which, unlike the politicians, applies a simple, effective, and consistent strategy. Its requirements are a host, i.e. humans, and a mechanism to spread.

As soon as it finds a host, it uses the typical tools of any coronavirus to propagate: it replicates at a high rate inside the organism and then expels the troops to the environment by making the host sniffle, sneeze, and cough.

Apart from those involuntary lines of attack, humans are for the most part quite content to assist in voluntary ways—they touch themselves and each other, talk in close proximity, travel and live in close quarters, use air conditioning in restaurants—familiarity breeds contempt.

As a result, Americans are drifting in a morass of unhinged and aimless policy (that was the smallest ‘p’ I could find) mainly (mis)directed by hapless politics.

Brazil is a disgrace, compounded by poverty, and it is only one of various Latin American hotspots.

And Europe, still reeling from the first wave, is now gathering steam for the second. Weird ideas like safe corridors for holiday travel, discretionary quarantine impositions that vary in time and space, and bizarre and contradictory advice are rife.

You will, for instance, be pleased to note that Her Majesty’s Government requires no quarantine when traveling to the British Antarctic Territory—bear in mind that may change overnight due to an infected penguin.

Vacation is a first world concept, so the virus has only whipped the Western World, but in so doing, it has demonstrated how easy it is to bring civilization to its knees.

The second wave came early to Europe, it was scheduled for the fall—contrary to the orange man’s empty wisdom, this virus seems quite comfortable with the heat.

And the current flavor of the virus has undoubtedly mutated, but we’re not sure how, and we don’t seem concerned. Is it more virulent? Has it adapted to target younger people? Older?

In the US, all the evidence points to a continuing first wave—both the virus and the debate continue to rage, both now focusing on re-opening schools—Mr. C. is rather looking forward to it.

The late fall will bring the third wave to Europe (the artist formerly known as the second wave), because Europe will once again bring this summer spike under control—by September, the curve will again be flattened, three weeks hence amnesia will resume, and five weeks later Mr. C. will have another go.

But by then it would be winter, as Neil Young famously sang, and Mr. C.’s friends will all come out to play.

In the U.S., as November 3rd approaches, confusion mounts. There’s no guarantee the first wave will subside, and if it does, the second will be rearing its ugly head.

The orang-u-tan will inevitably be thrown out, but the vote will take a while to count, with accusations of rigging spreading faster than Covid in a south Texas barroom.

One thing we should have learned by now—little Mr. C loves uncertainty and confusion.

The year is 2020, and we could be back in the Dark Ages—medical knowledge is replaced by whimsy, and the US stock market surges on borrowed cash while Main Street wilts.

And humans do what they love best—mass debate.

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.

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