Archive for the ‘History’ Category


March 10, 2018

Yea, verily, the circle is unbroken.

The twentieth century saw the rise of democracy in many parts of the world. In South America, Asia, Europe, and elsewhere, fascist and communist dictators were toppled.

The dictatorship of the proletariat—that most quintessential of hoaxes—was replaced by the will of the people. In the 21st century, we witnessed the Arab Spring, which so far hasn’t worked too well—I would suggest it cannot until Muslim women are emancipated, and the population accepts that the government must be secular.

After the Italian elections, Anne Applebaum’s article on the direction of modern politics took on new meaning. The gist is that political parties prefer not to be in power.

Applebaum provides an interesting quote from an unnamed British politician.

All political careers end in failure. Sooner or later everybody gets voted out, overthrown or forgotten.

Much as I admire Applebaum, I must chide her on two counts. First, the actual quote is different.

All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.

My second criticism is that she didn’t have the courage to name the source. The inconvenient author was Enoch Powell, leader of the U.K. National Front, an anti-immigration, extreme right-wing party, precursor of many in Europe today.

Powell’s obituary is worth reading, but his quote is based on a supposition—that the politician in question operates in democracy.

Should that not be the case, then the sentence is simplified to the ‘happy juncture’ part, i.e. dictators are only parted from office either through death or violent action.

This, then, is the fate that awaits the new emperor of China.

A Ping pastiche, to break you in gently.

China is now almost 1.4 billion strong, and given its trajectory since the cultural revolution, this is a heck of a time to return to the days of Mao Zedong. The Chinese have been protesting in their traditional way—subtly.

Someone discovered that Winnie the Pooh, or to use the Chinese name, wéi ní xióng, bore an uncanny likeness to the Chinese president. From there, it was only a heartbeat before the memes mounted up on the web.

The Chinese regime fought back with a brazen bear attack. Pooh was banned from the internet, and for a while so was the letter ‘N’, because the more mathematically-minded citizens expressed their discord through the N>2 inequality, which symbolized multiple terms in office.

Along with these actions, terms such as ’emperor’ were also proscribed, in preparation for a smooth transition from two terms to life.

Perhaps my personal favorite from the menu.

The internet in China thrives on allegory, using images, music, and deception to circumvent censorship—growing up under Portugal’s dictator Salazar was a similar experience, with newspapers and TV using smoke and mirrors to dodge the censor’s bludgeon.

Trump weighed in, if you excuse the pun, because he is also a man who believes in uncontested rule. When his comments, made with typical thoughtlessness at a private function in Mar-a-Lago, were leaked, the U.S. press made a vague attempt to pass them off as a joke—the fact is there is no evidence whatsoever that Trump actually owns a sense of humor.

For China, a nation so dear to my heart, this is the start of a long and arduous journey—the Middle Kingdom is about to revisit the Long March.

For the United States, there is little concern that there will ever be an emperor called Trump. Thankfully, the institutions are too strong and too diverse, and the people themselves are too accustomed to living free.

But if the most powerful country in the world went in that direction, it would mean that the first amendment had been severely curtailed—and the defense of the first amendment is today perhaps the single reason that would justify the second.

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


March 3, 2018

Science was once an insular sport. Scientists were viewed as eccentrics, possibly madmen, who performed all sorts of bizarre experiments, paced the countryside observing its flora, fauna, or geology, collected specimens, and scribbled furiously in notebooks.

Many of those laboratory trials were in fact rather strange, right back to the days of the alchemists and the philosopher’s stone. The attraction of mercury, due to its odd properties, probably concealed its deadly nature. A good many scientists of that era probably went slowly crazy due to mercury’s effects on the central nervous system, which may have compounded the oddity of their experimental protocols.

Before the XIXth century, researchers in different European nations were mostly unaware of each others’ work. It must have been a moment of great excitement when any of them found a kindred spirit—these were men driven by ideas, for whom the very notion of an intellectual battle was high jinx.

Scientists throughout the world continue to treasure intellectual jousting, but the discussion of concepts, methods, and results is played on two altogether different stages—conferences and academic journals.

The oldest ‘science club’ in the world is the U.K.’s Royal Society, founded in 1660. There, the most eminent thinkers met and discussed their theoretical and practical research. Other societies were created in France, Germany, and elsewhere, and discussions began to flourish—a legendary exchange took place in Oxford in 1860, when Bishop Wilberforce asked T.H. Huxley whether it was ”through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.’

Huxley, in his defense of Darwinism, replied:

I would not be ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor; but I would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.

The step from the spoken to the written word began when members began writing letters to their society’s president—these letters were the precursors of today’s journal articles.

It became standard practice to send such letters out for comment to a Fellow’s peers—in other words, this was the start of the scientific peer review process. In time, the approved letters turned into publications—today’s academic journals. The entire process of peer review was considered an obligation for scientists and academics throughout the world—a duty to be performed free of charge.

What has changed is the nature of the organizations that publish scientific papers. Throughout the XXth century, scientific societies mushroomed, with each subject area creating its own association, often country by country—and as different academic institutions began requiring that their staff publish journal papers in order to demonstrate their scientific capacity, science publication became big business.

With the advent of digital journals, the field boomed. No longer was it necessary to build, staff, and maintain huge, ivy-walled libraries, the ex-libris of Harvard, Oxford, or Bologna—the only requirement was a server farm. And along with the reduction in production costs came consolidation.

Nature and Science are the truly elite journals, but a huge set of upper- and mid-level journals are in the hands of a small group of publishers: the Dutch giant Elsevier—itself a child of behemoth Reed-Elsevier, the German colossus Springer, and a few others.

But one thing did not change—the free work that academics perform for the editorial conglomerates. This is now a system that can be safely qualified as abusive—no longer is this a set of dedicated intellectuals working on all four sides, i.e. writing, reviewing, publishing, and reading, but a money-making behemoth exploiting the good will of the academic community.

ScienceDirect, the flagship Elsevier website, contains a mere 12.5 million papers, from three thousand five hundred academic journals, along with thirty-four thousand e-books.

Each year, Elsevier publishes two hundred and fifty thousand articles, and interestingly, ‘a small minority‘ are apparently fake. One comment on the ‘minority’ states that for a scientist, that might be one percent, which suggests that out of the total repository, perhaps one hundred twenty-five thousand papers are fake news—even more interesting is one of the ways this deception is performed—since journal editors ask would-be authors for suggestions of reviewer names, some authors provide fake email addresses for their lists.

Since each one of these 250,000 articles is typically reviewed for free by three scientists, and probably takes about three hours to review, we are talking about two million person-hours per year. At about thirty dollars an hour, that’s a saving of sixty million bucks a year—multiply that by four or five majors, and we’re talking well over two hundred and fifty million bucks saved.

Maybe that’s chrysopoeia, the philosopher’s stone—turning quicksilver intellect into solid gold cash.

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

Arm Bears

February 25, 2018

I struggled with a title for this article. The Kids are Alright. Or perhaps Singularly Stupid.

In the end I decided to tell you about arming bears. As I start my text I’m sitting waiting for a plane. The reason for my journey is simple—for the second time in six months I’m heading to a funeral.

The man who died—although now it’s called passing, and one of these days it’ll be called a metabolic standstill issue—had a sense of humor drier than a James Bond Martini. So, I thought I’d pay tribute to his usual description of the second amendment of the US constitution as ‘the right of the people to arm bears.’

The loss of a very close friend is a serious blow, but imagine the loss of a teenage child, or a child of any age, for that matter. Some of my readers will unfortunately not need to imagine, because through illness, accident, or malicious action they will be in that situation. My heart grieves for anyone who has lost a daughter or son.

It is my firm belief that only the children can change the world, adults become too settled in their ways, too stubborn and conservative in their outlook. I am therefore delighted to hear such eloquent, intelligent, and driven high school students strike out at the heart of the tragedy of school shootings in the United States.


I’ve heard all the disingenuous NRA-style arguments about guns—people kill people, bullets kill people, and the bullshit ‘solutions’, including the very latest flavor in complete idiocy: arming teachers. It’s only a matter of time before that results in a classroom killing. It can happen in several ways: a teacher may become emotionally unstable and start shooting; someone might mistake an ordinary situation for an extraordinary one; they may miss their intended target and hit an innocent child instead; their firearm may be misplaced or stolen, with the exact opposite effect of deterrence.

Young men and women do not become schoolteachers because of an excess of testosterone—those guys join the special forces. Teachers are motivated by a love of learning, patience with kids, and fulfillment through intellectual achievement. They try to ensure slower kids are not left behind, they exercise compassion and diplomacy, and they combat the culture of elitism and bullying.

Teachers are not sharpshooters, or even shooters—they’re just sharp. If for no other reason, what chance would a teacher with a handgun stand against a bump-stocked AR15 enthusiastically sprayed by a lunatic?

So, if we exclude a gun ban, or at the very least a ban on automatic weapons, which is the only solution that works—consider how many school shootings have taken place in Canada, in Western Europe? One in Dunblane, Scotland, twenty-two years ago, and a couple of others in Germany and Finland—what are we do?

My late friend would undoubtedly suggest we arm bears. Allow me to pay him tribute, as I return from laying him to rest, by expanding on that concept.

The bear’s dilemma: to arm or not to arm?

Bears are extremely intelligent animals, but also incredibly frightening. Not only are they very large but they are also immensely strong, and excellent runners and climbers. If you need to work outdoors on Spitsbergen, an Arctic island above Norway, you will be assigned a sharpshooter with a rifle, since a polar bear will shortly wish to place you on his or her menu—a practice which has impinged on the animal’s reputation.

Weaponizing the bear would thus be a splendid public relations opportunity, aimed at recuperating an image that has been somewhat tarnished by folk lore. For the bear enjoys a splendid reputation with children—only grown-ups are averse to its charms.

From the ever-popular teddy bear, a firm favorite of all Western children, and often their only cuddly solace when the bedroom light is turned off and the door closed for the night, to the quintessentially British Paddington bear, rescued from atop a suitcase at the eponymous London railway station, kids love bears. It is only when children reach late teenage that they disengage from their furry friends—and since hardly any of us have ever seen a bear in the wild, let alone one strike in anger, it will take little to restore bearlove.

From the cast of Goldilocks to Yogi and Boo-Boo—fun, smart, and mischievous bears—youngsters carry a mental image of a friendly and fair creature—an animal of great discernment and awesome power.

Bears are one of the very few mammals capable of walking upright, and as such are eminently suited to being armed—it surely can’t be long before we see them toting automatic weapons; they are such superbly strong creatures that they could in fact be issued with RPGs as their standard sidearm.

A bear armed with an RPG would undoubtedly discourage NRA members from hunting it. At present, when faced with a gun, bears, like teachers, are left to face their attacker with bare arms, since they lack the wherewithal for a suitable riposte. Not so your armed bear, who might well deliver an RPG shell or five to the offending hunter, thus stopping him in his tracks—and very possibly obliterating both shooter and tracks altogether.

This, of course, would stimulate migration of bears into the conterminous United States, furthering a conservative cause dear to the hearts of republicans­—acknowledged fans of the great outdoors—by contrast to immigration of other two-legged creatures, which is nowadays barely possible.

Furthermore, the bear boasts a splendid all-weather coat, and will therefore represent major uniform savings—the new school stalwart may be deployed bare-naked. Allied to this, the grizzly, brown, and polar varieties can be employed in different seasons, and be perfectly camouflaged in the spring, fall, or winter. One can thus rely on the element of surprise as a perfect deterrent, as a bear in perfect harmony with the outside environment falls upon a marauding shooter.

A small musical interlude to stimulate your thoughts.

There is of course the question of food. It may present slight difficulties, given the bear’s penchant for human flesh. The secret here, to again quote my dear departed friend, is to keep the bear happy, but not too happy. A diet of honey, and other delicacies, is very popular with bears, as I learnt decades ago at the University of Hanna-Barbera (previously Koala Community College), and it is a matter of record that the polar bear is inordinately fond of salmon.

Leading by example, the bear’s fare would encourage high school kids to move toward an improved diet, rich in natural organic foods such as honey, and seafood filled with omega-three fatty acids. A simultaneous advantage of thus weaning students off fast food and sodas will be a slimmer, fitter student body, making it both less comestible in the bear’s eyes, and better equipped to run from the bear, should the need arise.

Given the bear’s legendary ferocity, it appears highly unlikely that any would-be murderer would even contemplate a school attack when faced with armed (or even unarmed) bears.

However, in the event that such a foolish action should occur, I suspect that, in apprehending murderous AR-fifteeners, the school bear would likely select its traditional form of attack, foregoing its weapon and baring its arms to the evil-doer, in order to greet him with a fraternal, if terminal, bear hug. Unlike a soft-hearted, wimpy teacher, who might attempt to only wing the teen terrorist, the bear would proceed to devour the pimply pubescent psychopath—it will save the judicial and penal systems of the United States millions of dollars, which should of course be directed to arming more bears.

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

Being for the Benefit of Mister Mogg

February 17, 2018

The younger Mogg is a hard-line British conservative politician, and a favorite butt of the UK satirical magazine Private Eye. This week, they honor him on the cover.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, retro-brit, as seen by Private Eye magazine.

Mogg senior, however, is currently the object of my attentions. The Guardian newspaper carried an article this week on New Zealand—normally that wouldn’t get my attention, and it was a very long-winded piece—but it focuses on the likes of Peter Thiel.

Thiel is a Silicon Valley billionaire—two orders of magnitude below Jeff Bezos, but still worth a respectable 2.5 billion dollars. There’s nothing unusual about tech entrepreneurs being wealthy, but Thiel is unusual because he supports Trump.

There’s a group of extremely wealthy folks who believe the apocalypse may be around the corner, and that the safest place to view it from is… New Zealand. Apart from the mystical vapors of Tolkien, the attraction appears to be its distance from… well, anywhere, and the fact that there’s plenty of clean air and water.

Some of these beliefs are fruit of a book called Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State, written by James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg, and published in 1997. The late Mogg was editor of The Times of London, and is the better-known of the two names.

I don’t like basing articles on reviews, so I did my best to locate a copy of the book. You can get it from Amazon in analog, but I wanted instant digital gratification—it didn’t prove easy. I browsed the deep web, using esoteric tools like, but I couldn’t access the real deal.

Like the Guardian author, I don’t plan to enrich the Mogg estate, so I’ll have to wing it. Mogg Major was apparently one of the first to predict the arrival of bitcoin, and deduced that this would free capital from taxation, since it would make it impossible for governments to trace income.

If I had a bitcoin (sing to the tune of If I Were a Rich Man) I could buy the book. At today’s rate it would cost me ten bucks and change.

The authors also suggest that democratic governments currently force folks to pay for health and education—the shame of it!

In this dystopian vision, sovereign individuals and corporations replace ineffectual democracies, and an entire new world order is created. The digital paradigm is at the center of this acid trip, and for those who are buying up apocalypse-free land in faraway places, there’s yet another hallucination—seasteading.

Seasteading looks like upmarket island living to me—a trip on a concrete petal (image from the Huffington Post).

The word is a little weird, which matches the concept itself—man-made islands where humans… live differently.

The Seasteading Institute empowers people to build floating startup societies with innovative governance models

The concept merits a book—written by someone aptly named Joe Quirk. French Polynesia seems to be on board, if you excuse the pun, and these man-made islands will of course be resilient to climate change, because—duh—they float.

The institute’s head, who does sound like a bit of a nutter, preaches the seasteading gospel.

Our venture is poised to launch a seasteading industry that will provide environmental resiliency to the millions of people threatened by rising sea levels, provide economic opportunities to people in remote and economically deprived environments, and provide humanity with new opportunities for organizing societies and governments.

Ambitious? Moi? Steady on, chaps…

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


My Generation

February 10, 2018

In 1965, a UK band called The Who released an anthem to Britain’s youth. The song was called My Generation, and it was adopted by the children born in the aftermath of World War II, kids just turning twenty.

The lyrics were succint—and I’m being generous—but two lines endure. In one, Daltrey stutters: ‘Why don’t you all just f-f-fade away’. Everyone knew the real line was fuck off, but that kind of language would never earn the band radio play—in a bizarre twist, the BBC initially banned the song because it was offensive to stutterers.

Undoubtedly, the most enduring line is ‘Hope I die before I get old’, which became a mantra in the rock world—the generation that shouted it at concerts was christened the baby boomers, and many have in fact faded away, including The Who’s legendary and unquestionably deranged drummer.

Keith Moon, often called Looney Mooney, was an early casualty of the 1960’s rock scene, along with Brian Jones, Hendrix, Joplin, Jim Morrison, and many others.

Humans love to classify, and to that end the Pew Research Center provides a definition of the various generational groups. Here they are, in reverse chronological order.

Generation Birth date range Age of adults in 2015
Millennials 1981-1997 18-34
Generation X 1965-1980 35-50
Baby Boomers 1946-1964 51-69
Silents 1928-1945 70-87
Greatest Before 1928 88-100

I can readily understand the post-war baby boom name, but a couple of others seem a stretch. Silents is bizarre, and while Greatest is undoubtedly true in terms of age, I suspect a spot of political correctness is at work here.

Marketing people love this kind of typecasting, and therefore persuade people to self-brand. I’ve always hated it, because I connect through similarity or complementarity, not imposition.

US-born individuals for each generation. The post-millenials are booming, and many of them will speak Spanish.

Seventy-six million baby boomers were born in the USA, still an all-time record for roughly equivalent periods of sixteen to eighteen years. Nevertheless, in 2015 the number of millennials overtook the baby boomers, who have a nasty tendency to keep dying.

The crossover point was seventy-five million, and the millennials are expected to reach eighty-one million by 2036. I was perplexed to see the number increasing, but of course there’s a one-word answer: immigration.

Millenials were predicted to outspend boomers by this year, but a quick web trawl suggests we’re not there yet. The flip is important, because millennials approach purchasing in a different way—they drive a market for local produce, organic foods, and standards in areas such as animal welfare, none of which were ever a major consideration for their parents.

Boomers don’t hold a candle to the coming generation, which is turned on to an entirely different vibe.

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

Uisce Beatha

February 3, 2018

I had last been to Helsinki on midsummer’s day—this time it was pretty close to the winter solstice. It was dark when I landed, it was dark when I left, and dark pretty much all the time I was there. The app said the UV index was low.

It was minus fourteen centigrade (about 7oF) when I got into town, but with the wind chill you could knock a few more degrees off that. Finland is very efficient, even slightly robotic—people go about their business with no fuss, and no one talks much.

In fact, nobody showed any measure of excitement about anything—until I mentioned the word sauna. At that point, previously phlegmatic Finns began jabbering about the merits of this and that spot, from the Kultuuri sauna to my final choice, Löyly.

Thar she blows! Not Moby Dick, but the Kultuuri sauna in Helsinki.

Finnish is as impenetrable as North Korea, but the locals clearly have a fetish for serial vowels. If they hooked up with the Welsh, who are devoted to consecutive consonants, their offspring might produce some fairly reasonable words. It would be great to drive into the local countryside and see a sign saying:

Welcome to


twinned with



Oh joy. Like driving into the small French town of Condom, or to use it’s full name, Condom-en-Armagnac. Speaking of which, although I am in possession of a box of whisky-flavored condoms, foolishly purchased in a Scottish pub, a condom in Armagnac is surely aimed (sorry) at a more refined partner? Ooh la la! But do resist the flambé option.

Believe it or not, the tourism blurb lists ‘fluvial activity’ as one of the attractions of Condom. Oh, and there’s a road called Bell End in the British Midlands. And…

I digress.

I headed for the sauna. The cab driver helpfully informed me that the building was right on the coast—on the website it’s billed as an urban oasis. One explained that bathing in sub-zero temperatures was entirely out of the question.

If you want to see a smiling Finn, go to the sauna. The place was a hive of activity—a pastiche of pale bodies steaming, talking, and of course drinking. Young and old couples, a girls’ night here and there, the lads out for a good time… It’s good clean fun, gender-friendly, and no birthday suits, thank heaven.

I investigated the perilous path to the bay—the blurb calls it a ‘stretch of beautiful Helsinki waterfront’, and tells you how nice it is ‘on a beautiful summer’s day’. No mention of what it’s like when it’s pitch black and fucking freezing, and you’re standing there with your bare feet in the snow, clad only in the latest Finnish swimwear fashion accessory—around you, ageing Helsinkians, clearly suffering from sub-zero Alzheimer’s, are queuing up for one-stop hypothermia.

It’s all about water here, in solid, liquid, or vapor form. The few times I walked longer stretches, I was struck by two thoughts. The first was how people survived in this country back in the days of the Vikings, under such bitter conditions—and how animals survive it today. The second was Russia. It may seem like a random thought, but if you consider similar weather in the Russian heartland, where the heating and amenities are probably closer to the Viking era, the West definitely has cause to worry.

I can definitely see how the Russian winter, with its biting cold and endless nights, destroyed the armies of Napoleon and Hitler. This isn’t a country you can conquer—it’s not even a country you’d want to conquer. Whether ice or snow, or flooded gorges, the water will get you.

All the while, across the other side of the world, Cape Town is drying up. Nothing now comes out of your faucet, and citizens have to ‘go to the well’, as it were, and queue at collection points for a quota of just under seven US gallons per day. Those twenty-five liters were announced on CNN this morning—it could be fake news, since the City of Cape Town website refers twice that volume.

Water of life—the flip-side

Whatever the story, it’s getting worse. Forget FBI memos, political posturing, and all the other trivial nonsense that storms our heads on a daily basis.

Celebrate the water of life, every minute of every day.

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



January 28, 2018

In the original Latin, the word was related to favor. Either to depend on favor, or to be given as a favor. It’s a term I’ve heard all my adult life—in Portugal, and assuredly elsewhere, it has a clear connotation with employment—there’s even an NGO by that name.

The end of precarious labor is one of the banners of the left—the fight for permanence, where a job has continuity, and a worker can plan a life based on a steady income stream.

In the developed world, this ‘jobs for life’ model ended with the baby boomers—the very early baby boomers, at that. Post-austerity in Southern Europe, it became obvious that the pension model was similarly dead.

There’s a certain irony here, because jobs for life are what we have now—a nuanced version where retirement age steadily increases, and you work until you’re physically unable to carry on. In both halves of the hourglass, but particularly in the McDonald’s half, you shift (excuse the pun) into each new ‘job’ until you keel over.

For John and Jane, the golden handshake (or watch), the golf links, the Martini-modulated retirement plan, are a bygone. Current baby boomers and millennials are under no illusion: precarious is the new normal.

A recent study in the U.K. entitled ‘thriving, striving, or just about surviving’, reports that seventy percent of the country’s population is practically broke. Forty percent of the two thousand people interviewed stated their finances were ‘permanently precarious’, and the lowest thirty percent claimed they were ‘not managing to get by’—a British euphemism for being broke.

The lie of the land. Jobs in the United Kingdom, analyzed by the Royal Society of Arts.

The Royal Society of Arts commissioned this research, and the report identifies a wholly new class structure. In this brave new world, there are seven classes, in ascending order.

The chronically precarious: the reliably broke, people in this group are typically on a steady contract albeit with low pay. 60% have less than £1,000 saved and they have low job satisfaction and little autonomy at work. Typical job: full-time sales assistant.

The acutely precarious: usually broke but with significant income “yoyo-ing”. Work is often low-paid but, unlike the chronically precarious, irregular. This is a young group and 45% have a degree. Typical job: zero-hours hospitality.

The flexi-workers: love their job, even if it doesn’t pay well: 83% are satisfied at work but 59% earn less than £21,000 a year. High levels of savings: many are redundant “second careerers”. They value autonomy above security. Typical job: freelance photographer.

The steady-staters: feel well treated (90%) and well paid (69%), even if work is a means to an end. But they have low savings, and rely on work for income so are vulnerable to a shock. Their routine jobs are at high risk of automation. Typical job: public sector administrator.

The idealists: mid-earning, passionate and often millennials (50% under 35), 70% think they make a positive contribution to society at work. They are most likely to rely on others, such as parents, for income. They are urbane and 25% have more than £10,000 saved. Typical job: charity employee.

The strivers: these have regular jobs with high income and high savings, but worry the link between hard work and fair pay has broken: 73% are stressed but only 20% think their pay reflects their efforts. Typical job: middle manager.

The high-flyers: the wealthiest group: 55% have more than £10,000 in savings. They are successful at adapting to automation, and the most likely group to value new technology. They report high job security, high autonomy and high fulfilment. Typical job: director of an IT services business.

This distribution is heart-rending. Forty-three percent of the total have no safety net—if they lose their job, have an accident, or fall prey to the many other tricks life plays on us, no one in their household is able to support them.

I’ve been in England all weekend, talking to people who voted enthusiastically for Brexit, listening to the same people moaning about the government, and eating and drinking in establishments where the staff have no idea of the meaning of good service.

I also had the opportunity to examine one National Health Service (NHS) facility at close quarters, and I was impressed—in a good way. The hospital I visited was full of dedicated staff, of which the vast majority were foreigners: Indians from Kerala, Greeks, Spaniards, East Europeans.

I was struck by the friendly and competent nurses, the cleanliness, the quality of the wards—everything impressed me. I saw empty corridors, not gurney-ridden walls of patients waiting for treatment. I guess that may happen in some places, but it didn’t happen here.

I saw that much of the work was executed by immigrants, who definitely fall into some of the more challenging classes above. I guess the Indians will stay on after the Europeans go, but I can tell you they will be missed.

Work like this is not a job, it’s a calling. I searched through the RSA report for data on immigrants. The word pops up only once. I wonder how many of those two thousand people are not UK nationals, and I think I know the answer—very few.

So here’s the thing. The UK is no different from a bunch of other countries. So take a selfie. Where do you fit in?

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


Under the Hood

January 20, 2018

The advent of dieselgate, which in some form or another, affected not just the Volkswagen group but various other vehicle companies, gave an extra push to the debate on electric vehicles.

I’ve now tried a number of hybrids and fully electric cars, both as a driver and a passenger, and there’s no doubt the technology is, if you excuse the pun, steaming ahead.

Cars, and road vehicles in general, have traditionally caused three types of problems: air pollution, traffic congestion (including parking), and accidents. Of course they’ve also solved a number of problems, by providing us with personalized and convenient circulation options.

I’ve lived with cars all my life, and have a totally irrational love affair with them—but then a rational love affair is an oxymoron. It’s a bit of an ambiguous relationship, since I have no enthusiasm for motor racing, whether formula  one or rally-driving, and yet I love driving—preferably driving fast.

The other thing I love is the perfection of the engineering solutions that underpin the automotive industry, which is a pretentious way of saying that I love fixing cars. I do much less of that now, because I have less time, twisting and bending is much less fun that it used to be, but mainly because car engines have really changed.

The core elements aren’t different, and the internal combustion engine, whether petrol or diesel, still operates on exactly the same principles, and uses the same arrangements of pistons, valves, shafts, chains, and belts to bring home the bacon. The same applies to other parts of the vehicle: brakes still use pads, gearboxes have cogs, and transmissions, driveshafts, shocks, and clutches could still be easily recognized by a World War II mechanic.

So what changed? In the last thirty years, cars developed a nervous system—the whole command and control structure changed, reflecting the enormous advances in sensors and consumer electronics. Putting that to work in a car is tricky—it falls under the heading of cybernetics: sensors drive moving parts, open and shut valves, and adjust emissions—or not, which is how the VW group peed in the soup. All this regulation has to occur while the car is bumping around, in an environment that includes water in vapor, liquid, or solid form, and with sharp temperature and light shifts.

Nowadays, it’s impossible to understand a car without plugging a computer into it: the vehicle then confesses its inner secrets to you, and you can even play doctor—turning off annoying warning lights, changing tuning settings, and diagnosing faults. In that respect, cars are already far more advanced than humans—imagine if someone developed a sensor, perhaps marketed as some kind of bike helmet, which tapped into your brain and retrieved all your key metabolic information, how your eyes and ears were doing, low-level infections, abnormal cell growth…

Some time ago, I bit the bullet and bought one such gismo off a US company called Ross-Tech, and was able to peer into the innards of my car. The Ross-Tech story is very much a tale of an entrepreneur, who decided to make a business out of something he enjoyed.

Like me, the Ross-Tech CEO is not a big fan of meetings.

The company developed a first-class product and empowered mom-and-pop shops that wanted to repair VWs and Audis, taking a bite out of the dealerships.

And here lies the first problem with the shift toward electric cars—they have very few moving parts. Maybe that’s an asset rather than a liability: if you own an electric vehicle, there are no plugs to change, no oil and air filters to worry about, no valve adjustments—you just drive the thing.

However, if you do have a problem, it can be pretty serious—recently an older generation electric car had a battery failure, and the replacement cost was twenty thousand dollars—the market value of the car was less than half of that. Nowadays, those prices have fallen, but there are still a few horror stories out there.

In the US, batteries have an eight- or ten-year warranty, depending on where you live, so what that tells me is that the average life of an electric car is eight years—no one in their right minds will risk a fifteen grand repair bill on a nine year old vehicle.

Battery cost is going to be a key determinant in the success of electric vehicles, with 2026 predicted to be the year where there will be a tipping point in yield, really pushing electric and scrapping diesel first, and petrol second.

In line with the predictions contained in my current book, The Hourglass, which I plan to release later in the year, car mechanics will be another group of people who will join the ranks of the unemployed—and as self-driving cars become a mainstream feature on the highway, the body shop fraternity will add to that list, as fender-benders become a thing of the past.

In the States, three-quarters of a million people work in the auto repair industry—that’s four times those in the coal-mining sector.

Dirty Donnie’s plans for the US coal industry, as portrayed on a wall in Dublin city center.

Which is an excellent segway for talking about energy sources. Electric cars are a wonderful improvement on emissions in the major cities of the world. The Chinese, in particular, are really driving this particular bus—the Middle Kingdom has already forbidden foreign investment in battery cells—and is racing ahead with other options.

So, you can clean up Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou—but energy, like fish, is not a printable commodity, and neither can it be created nor destroyed. It’s in limited supply, and a huge distribution network is required to feed all the electric vehicles.

China has a plentiful supply of coal, so it goes without saying that a thoroughly unclean source of energy will contribute to the cleaner cities of the future—this may lead to serious atmospheric and water pollution—a discussion that is far from complete.

For traffic congestion, the standard rule applies.

Build more roads, get more cars.

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



January 13, 2018

Wintertime in Europe is always a killer—and those among us who are more debilitated are a prime target for the cocktail of microorganisms that surround us.

Jenner, Pasteur, Koch, Lister, and Fleming are the giants who, from the early XIXth century onward, showed us that we are vast repositories of microscopic creatures. The keyword here is microscopic, so our everlasting gratitude must go to the optical physicists who invented the tools that let us peer into that world.

The numbers are stunning—the most recent estimates place the human cell count at 37.2 trillion—that’s twelve zeros. In itself, this is an amazing figure: it means that our command and control systems manage, on a very short time cycle (how long will it take you to yell if someone steps on your toe?) a community four thousand times larger that the expected world population in the year 2050.

And this is a community, unlike planet earth, that only rarely goes to war with itself—although when it does, it may fight to the death.

But for these 37.2 trillion cells, we carry an estimated one hundred trillion others as microbiota. In 2008, the US National Institutes of Health funded the Human Microbiome Project, or HMP, to understand the bugs that live with us as we make our way through life.

HMP uses the new arsenal of genetic tools such as metagenomic sequencing, and combines these with Big Data—currently, this means almost fifteen terabytes of publicly available data.

Since a terabyte is a trillion bytes, there are six microorganisms to every byte. The data live on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud and records look like this:


This one is for feces, but there are data also for the mouth and nose, skin, other parts of the gut, and the urogenital tract. These are entry points for microbes—those that live in us, and those that live on us.

How much do all these microbes weigh? A bacterial cell may be only one tenth the size of a human cell, so it would weigh one thousand times less—if we use that number, then the whole of our microbiota only adds 0.3% to our weight. In 2012 the NIH estimated bacteria are 1-3% of our total weight—for a 160 lb adult, that’s up to five pounds of bugs—but at that time the ratio of bug to human cells was thought to be around ten.

A human cheek cell and the bacteria that call it home.

Some of these microorganisms help us out in various ways—others, of course do not. As in many other organisms, some human pathogens are with us for the ride, but most of the time, our body keeps things well in check. However, in extremes of cold or heat, the body is laboring to keep the home trillions humming nicely, and things can quickly get out of hand.

The UK is presently grappling with Aussie flu—in true British fashion, this has provoked comments such as ‘not content with beating us at cricket, now they’ve given us their flu.’

Flu is of course a killer—this particular strain, called H3N2, infected 170,000 Australians and killed three hundred. All over Europe, the flu is straining the national health systems, with patients left in corridors for hours before beds become available.

In Britain, this has caused an outcry, culminating in the unusual step taken by a number of doctors to write directly to the prime minister. Nevertheless, Europe doesn’t sink to the depths of ‘patient dumping‘, a sinister practice which seems to flagrantly contradict the oath of Hippocrates.

I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing (…) Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free (…)

The image of a poor, black woman, lonely and confused, unceremoniously dumped at a bus stop in downtown Baltimore by hospital security is evil indeed.

Far more evil than five pounds of bugs.

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

Rednecks Don’t Read

January 6, 2018

On Wednesday, I read an excerpt from ‘Fire and Fury’ in the UK Guardian newspaper. I confess my ignorance, I’d never heard of Michael Wolff—but the Guardian focused on  quotes from Bannon, the angel of death, which were astonishingly frank.

It’s not that the content was stunning, if you’ve done a little homework on Trump. I promoted a (non-Wibaux) book recently on these pages that mentioned a movie from the 1990’s called What’s the Deal. When I tried to find the film, I came up blank—YouTube has a one-minute trailer, and that’s it. Amazon doesn’t sell it.

You don’t need to trawl the dark web to find it, but the location is, er… a little duskier than the US cabinet. But I digress—and so should you. The reason the movie is hard to find is the essence of Trump’s survival recipe—litigation.

So it comes as no surprise that from Wednesday onward the Washington shitstorm outplays the East Coast snowstorm. The first step was a cease and desist order from Trump’s personal lawyers to the book’s publishers—in a visionary business move, Henry Holt Publishers brought the book’s release forward by four days, ruining Trump’s first weekend of 2018.

Then came the tweets, where the juices flow faster—and the nicknamefest, where the Trump kindergarten welcomed a new playschool admission: Sloppy Steve. Sad.

They’re all lined up near the wall at Trump elementary. Look, there’s Liddle Marco, enthralled by the words of Lyin’ Ted. And who’s that little girl with the smirk and the adult pantsuit? Why, it’s Crooked Hillary, giggling at the little boy peeing on the lime tree—can you believe it? “Leakin’ James Comey, stop that right now, or I’m calling Mrs. Huckleberry.” And over there, snoozing instead of schmoozing, Low Energy Jeb—so sad, when he could have been playing with Pocahontas, or consoling Cryin’ Chuck. And now in comes Sloppy Steve, the new kid in school. Dissy Don wrinkles his nose—jeez, this kid hasn’t washed in years, he shouts. All the playground cracks up, except that little fat oriental boy in the corner, who just sits there with his finger on the light switch—I guess that’s why they call him rocket man.

Lookalikes: Michael Wolff flips the bird at Donald Trump while Mini-Me looks on.

When the late Tom Clancy published The Hunt for Red October, it sank like a U-Boat. Shortly after, Reagan endorsed it as ‘the perfect yarn’, and it shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list faster than an F-15.

Trump’s book endorsement is only the second example of presidential editorial camaraderie, but Wolff has already come back with a classic. ‘Where do I send the box of chocolates?’

It’s the first case I know where Trump doesn’t actually get paid for lending his name to a money-spinner. The reasons he, and therefore his team of sycophants, are so upset, when compared for instance to the publication of ‘The Making of Donald Trump’, are three.

First, this book talks about now. One of Dissy’s favorite tactics about past events is stressing they’re all ancient history, and therefore forgettable—his view of history is obvious in the directionless policy trajectory of the current US administration.

Second, a bunch of his ‘so smart, so great’ coterie jumped onto this bandwagon not through a sense of civic duty, but with undisguised gusto—this is immensely predictable, reading a little history would teach you that. Many within the current White House will be doing Cheshire Cat impressions.

Third, Wolff shares an audience with Trump, contrary to most other critics. Where the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, and others, don’t tap into the great unwashed, Mini-Me does. He specializes in bombastic stuff, which appeals directly to the thirty-five percent Trump hangs onto. This is a guy who writes for the Hollywood Reporter, USA Today, GQ UK, and was described by the New York Times as a ‘prime piranha.’

Grinning like a Cheshire Cat behind the boss’s back.

The piranha is a protected species in Brazil, and for the moment, so is Mini-Me. Litigation is a very different ballgame for a sitting US president than for the head of a corporation—if there’s one thing (but there are so many) that Trump fails to understand, it’s that railroading the democratic system is extremely difficult.

Any system attempts to maintain its status quo by throwing up barriers to change—a characteristic that can be used for good or evil. Democracy, in the nations where the word is more than lip-service, did not come naturally—those in power do not willingly serve the people.

In Portugal, it arrived in 1974 after forty-eight years of fascist rule, the longest dictatorship in Western Europe. In the US, it took a civil war to break the system apart, and yet the system recovered and strengthened.

Democracies endure because institutions work—the model was first perfected in Ancient Greece, and has been tested, destroyed, reborn, mutilated, and finally prevails in some of the world. It is typically bicameral, for development of laws, and possesses a strong, independent judiciary. Those checks and balances stop the executive branch from doing what the hell it likes. And stimulate it to move in the right direction.

All the peoples of the world, and they are the majority, who do not live by this model, whether through principle or practice, are envious of it.

When a book like this comes out, the firestorm does us all a favor. It shines a light. Maybe some of the colors in that light are fake, but the publisher will already have spent a fortune on legal advice to ensure it doesn’t have to spend one afterward—anyhow, sales will cover litigation costs, and the more Don disses, the higher the print run.

I’ve already donated my fifteen bucks toward the legal fees, and will read the book with some curiosity, and of course with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek—TV will be a constant spoiler, so I’ll need to read it fast. Many others will read the book, it’s a great new year’s resolution.

But it’s that thirty-five percent I’m worried about. Rednecks don’t read.

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


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