Archive for the ‘Humor’ Category

Forego

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.

Miss American Pie

July 19, 2020

The great mysteries of human existence are two—life and death.

Of the two, life is by far the greater one for me, for a couple of reasons: the first is the biological basis for life, and there’s no greater wonder than biology. The second is because I am agnostic, which means I don’t know (a gnosis).

You can use that word in several contexts—like the terms ecosystem and DNA, which I see used in business and marketing—I still cringe when these two terms are used out of their core context, but I’ve come to comprehend that the general use of words such as virus means science becomes more mainstream, which is a good thing.

But agnostic, used by itself, denotes a religious context—many people think it means you don’t believe in God—in Islamic terms you’re a kuffar. This is incorrect—if you’re agnostic, you’re not sure, so I view death as the end of the mystery.

When life goes out of you, everything stops working against a gradient and descends into a state of randomness. What were once organs, tissues, and cells are reduced to molecules—going down that road releases energy—making money requires work, spending it doesn’t.

In that sense, life is a complex word—it stands for all the things that make you a living organism, which, as you know from grade school biology, are seven: growth, respiration, nutrition, excretion, reproduction, movement, senses.

I see these simple concepts from my childhood have graduated into more complicated definitions, such as ‘have complex chemistry’ and ‘are made up of cells’. So do antibiotics and prisons, and I don’t see a need to overthink it—when you teach kids, simple is best—they’ll have plenty of time for complications.

This cartoon from ourworldindata.org shows us how small we really are.

Humans only make up 0.01% of the earth’s biomass—jellyfish are almost double that. So it would be fair to say that practically no one on this planet has any concept of death—no other animals on god’s green earth (there’s that agnostic thing) know they will one day die.

Unless you’re ill, mentally or physically, you don’t typically have a death wish—and as we live longer, and understand better the forces in play between life and death, we start to wonder if it would be possible to know when that fateful day will be.

That raises the metaphysical issue of whether you want to know, or whether you prefer blissful ignorance. If you know you’re going to slip and break your leg tomorrow, how will that change your today?

Even if the other organisms, from bacteria to chimpanzees, were aware that they are finite, most species on earth fit somewhere along the food chain—at some point, these guys are going to get eaten, but neither a Brussels sprout nor a springbok knows when.

I may be destined to die in a plane crash, and if so I can’t predict when—although I’ve stood on the tarmac in Tangier and Tete and wondered if it was smart to get on that particular tin can.

But when it comes to dying ‘naturally’, whatever that means, there are quite a few predictive tools out there.

Governments, life and medical insurance companies, employers, and the military are some of the clients that come to mind.

Whoever manages you, or manages the risk of you, has a vested interest in knowing when you’re expected to kick the bucket. Back in the day, basic actuarial tables did the job—then mortality curves for a population began to be decomposed, if you excuse the pun, into men and women, black and white, rich and poor, fat and thin, tall and short, gay and straight, rural and urban, married and single, even happy and sad.

As soon as that much data are available, statisticians go into orgasm mode—you can calculate the probability of death of a short, gay guy who smiles a lot while feeding the chickens.

Death predictors are of course available on the internet.

Now, I caution you about this for two reasons. First, because I am specifically suggesting you don’t use them—although I did, since in order to write this article I needed a guinea pig—moi. Second, because I’m pretty sure the sites I tried harvest and share my data, including my IP, or internet location, which is unsettling.

If you search for ‘lifespan calculator web’, the first link you come across is, surprisingly enough, called Lifespan Calculator.

Amusingly, it tells you that how long you’ve lived is one of the best predictors for how long you may live. Note the may. If you tell them you’re forty-five, then the predictor knows you’ve lived at least forty-five years, which is pretty informative. I don’t suppose folks who’ve not lived that long go on the site much…

The calculator is run by Northwestern Mutual, an insurance company. I did pretty well on my run, or at least according to what they showed me. No nasty questions on cancers or Alzheimer’s to ruin it all, but a couple of questions on my driving record—I suspect those go straight to the motor insurance dept.

I also played around with a British site called Ubble. Their ‘longevity explorer’ politely enquired as to my cancer record, but didn’t give a damn about my BMI—they too seemed optimistic about my longevity, and estimated my age as anywhere between eleven and six years younger than the true number.

On the whole, my survey results made me suspicious—a pessimist is an optimist with experience.

Ubble has some cool stuff—they use a set of ten categories and their respective indicators. Categories include for instance early life factors and psychosocial factors. Some questions are better (usual walking pace) than others (number of days per week of moderate physical activity) at predicting death within five years. And some variables are better correlated with age (weekly usage of mobile phone in last 3 months) than others (salt added to food).

There is one way to solve the mystery of death, and perhaps of life itself—cryogenics. To explore those possibilities, I found my way to the Life Extension Foundation.

Alcor will freeze your body or your brain for a fee. Their focus is the United States and Canada—if you’re Chinese they charge an extra fifty thousand bucks—maybe they know something we don’t!

It’s not cheap to get frozen, and of course once they defrost you we’re not sure whether you’re destined for the oven or the barbecue.

Two hundred grand for the body, eighty grand for the brain. The inference is that your body will be pretty fucked anyhow when they bring you back, so you will literally need reincarnation—the word comes from the Latin carne (flesh)—buddy, they’re gonna re-meat ya!

So, when all that happens, you’ll find the answer to the second mystery. Do you have a soul, where is heaven, and what is hell.

For now, I’ll stick to the classic definition. Hell is a place where French are mechanics, Americans are lovers, and the English are cooks.

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

Deposition

July 12, 2020

There are six monarchies in the European Union.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that’s a whole lotta love.

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

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

Kitchen Wars

July 5, 2020

In the West, Russians are often depicted as dour and humorless—but humor is one of the great weapons in fighting tyranny.

The best jokes—and the best music—come out in times of adversity, and all tyrants hate to be laughed at. From pocket-bullies like the orange man to proper meanies like Uncle Vlad, mockery is their kryptonite.

Never has so much fun been poked at an American president, but after he loses the November election, no one will ever laugh at him again—that’s the way of the world. Putin, on the other hand, has just achieved the ambition of every putative dictator—the lifetime award.

Xi Jinping pipped him to the post, but then no one in their right mind would call China a democratic society—and in their defense, the Chinese government makes no pretense of it.

In China, memes, video, and indirect references—particularly puns—are all the rage when it comes to political pushback—witness the banning of Winnie The Pooh, for obvious reasons, and the use of the number 2 in protest of Xi’s push for more than two terms, such as in the mathematical inequality N>2.

A classic, reproduced from my article over two years ago.

In the Middle Kingdom, the term is egao, or evil works, and internet egao is rampant.

In 2009, the ‘grass mud horse’ appeared, with Chinese characters cǎo ní mǎ. The word ma is one of the best known to Mandarin beginners, with its five meanings depending on the character tone: mother, hemp, horse, and scold. The final ma is the equivalent of a question mark.

Of the set above, I was unfamiliar with mud, or cǎo. A small change to cào nǐ mā converts the sentence into ‘fuck your mother’—the grass mud horse first appeared to poke fun at government censorship of vulgar humor.

Hu Jintao was very keen on harmony—dissenters often quipped they’d been ‘harmonized.’

In Mandarin, harmony is made of three characters: bèi hé xié, or simply hé xié. In this vein of humor, the Chinese speak of being ‘river-crabbed’, or bèi hé xiè. Note the only differences are the character river (), and crab (xiè).

The river crab is an ecological foe of the grass mud horse—at least to Chinese netizens.

This particular harmony takes the piss out of Jiang Zemin’s three represents: economic production, cultural development, and political consensus.

More on all that here, but let’s move east to the banks of the Volga. As you might expect, state TV paints a rosy picture of life in Russia that isn’t matched by the food in the kitchen. Russians call it the ‘battle between the television and the fridge.’

Putin’s robust approach to foreign policy, together with expert media manipulation and disinformation, is giving the victory to the TV, even if supplies are dwindling from the chiller drawers to the icebox.

Anti-government humor has no place in Russia, whereas it is used as a tool by the regime to great advantage. When the UK suggested Russian involvement was ‘highly likely’ in the Skripal poisoning, the typical Brit understatement grew wings and appeared everywhere as a source of mirth.

The Soviet Union gave us some classic anti-tyranny anekdoty, such as this gem.

On a sunny morning, Brezhnev goes out on the balcony of his apartment, looks to the east, and says, “Hello, sun!” The sun replies, “Good morning, dear Leonid Ilyich, the beloved leader of our glorious socialist motherland, the hope of all progressive humanity, and the guardian of peace on Earth!” In the evening, Brezhnev admires the beautiful sunset and fishes for a compliment: “Hello again, sun!” The sun answers, “Poshyol na khuy—go fuck yourself—I am in the West now.”

The Putin equivalents don’t seem to target the man himself, so much as taking the piss out of his counterparts.

Vladimir Putin is calling the White House. Hello, Donald? I would like to discuss Ukraine with you.”
Trump: “What’s Ukraine?”
Putin: “Thanks, Donald!”

There are, however, a good many jokes circulating about Putin that are not so flattering—the emphasis is on corruption and the president’s immense wealth, and on his strong-man foreign policy, predicated on occupation.

America’s strength comes to the fore when compared to the examples above—even a Fox anchor suggested to the Republican National Committee chair that MAGA should stand for Masks Are Great Again, and managed to get a smile.

Trump is physically incapable of smiling at something like that—I doubt he’d manage a grimace—but ever the opportunist, he’s now declared support for masks, even joking he’d wear a Lone Ranger one. Never mind that the famous radio show character from the 1930’s covered his eyes, rather than his mouth and nose—I prefer to focus on his Comanche sidekick, called Tonto—in Latin America that means ‘idiot.’

If the COVID stretch continues, you’ll soon hear the orang-u-tan tell you how he’s always loved masks, and that he was one of the great instigators of mask-wearing. Folks will gasp in amazement, and clips will be played stating the opposite, but none of that will count.

Everyone’s a sucker for the old reality show. Yet all the humor persists, from late show hosts to YouTube memes, and the virus insists on chasing Trump’s re-election into the grave.

The RNC is coming soon to a non-curve-crushed venue near you. After that, it’s a whisper to November. And on that day, the US will begin to recover from it’s worst mistake in decades.

I could write this article in the States. I couldn’t write it in Russia or China. And that makes all the difference.

By the way—what MAGA should stand for, if folks come to their senses, is Masks Are Good for America.

Trump will be defeated by a nanoparticle.

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


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