Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Paradigm

September 26, 2020

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

More palindromic than scatological. Perhaps scatodromic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stressed?Desserts.

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

The Now People

September 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are b

Why are bees so important

Why are bones good for dogs

Why are f

Why are flies attracted to me

Why are farts so funny

Why are p

Why are Portuguese so short

Why are Pisces so good in bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queue Who?

September 5, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know all this because you believe in Q.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless you, Bob.

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

SCIENCE IS TRUTH.

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

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

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.

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.

Main Street

June 6, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Brit pinstripe-speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reboot

May 31, 2020

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

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

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

Robert Burns, November 1785

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

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

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

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

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

2020 is about to reboot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spurious correlation

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

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

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

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

And now it truly is broken.

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

The Four Horsemen

May 24, 2020

Over the past weeks, my articles have been a bit of a covidfest. Mea culpa (sound of chest beating), my friends, but since in a roundabout way I write about history, I think what we are all (hopefully) living through is a planetary event of huge historical relevance.

There I was thinking I’d invented a new word, when an obscure group of idiots (yup, covidiots) from an obscure town called Ipiaú in Brazil shattered my illusions.

A collection of young fools on the way to their ‘covidfest’, stopped by Brazilian military police.

These geniuses—I count fifteen, six boys with hands behind their heads and nine girls—were all breaking curfew on their way to a self-described covidfest, but the most fascinating bit of irresponsibility is the white pick-up.

All fifteen, and there may be a couple of extra off-camera cretins, were in that pick-up, some possibly already on top of each other.

In the Book of Revelations, the four horsemen of the apocalypse ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses. In the New Testament, these guys carry pestilence, war, famine, and death.

In today’s metaphor, white is Trump, red is Putin, black is Bolsonaro, and pale is Boris. The colors of the nags are quasi-serendipitous: the white supremacy, the ex-KGB (an oxymoron in itself), the country that gave us the mulatto, and the pale English rose.

These four strong men, peerless populists of the new century, exemplify everything that is wrong with… populism. So did Hitler and Mussolini, so did Napoleon, so did the others who twist down the tunnels of history, back to the Roman Empire, to the Egyptian pharaohs—ever since men were able to lead other men, right back to the creation of the species, populists have been the ruin of societies.

Populism thrives on discontent—in our times, this stems from job erosion, widening of the wealth gap, competition with immigration, and globalization. For Western working class and middle class families, hope shall be restored by a strong man—not a lot of populist women out there if you exclude French wannabe-has-been Le Pen—whose firm hand will guide a vessel lost at sea.

If the pre-pandemic perspective was a society devoid of compass and sextant, casting citizens adrift in an evermore choppy ocean, I wonder how all those good people feel now.

Those four strong men represent ten percent of the world’s population.

They are collectively responsible for forty-nine percent of the planet’s COVID-19 cases, and forty-seven percent of the world’s deaths. Case closed on geopolitical and historical significance!

Worse, I fully expect these numbers to change, and not in a good way. Time for a bit of music…

This old tune brings back memories of simpler times, when a payphone operator requested forty cents to keep a romantic call going for a period of three minutes—phones don’t have periods anymore, it’s all good clean fun nowadays.

The US and Brazilian case fatality rates, or CFR, hover at around six percent, two to three points above the best testers. In the meantime, a video made public over the weekend shows the Brazilian president swearing like the proverbial fishwife—an edifying example of what populism is really about.

The UK and Russia sit at opposite ends of the CFR spectrum—it’s pretty clear that the UK has a lot more cases than those reported, but the Russian number is the most interesting.

Putin’s nation seems indestructible—at one percent, it has the lowest fatality rate in the world. Right now, it has the same number of cases as Brazil, but you just can’t kill off the Russians—only three thousand six hundred dead have been reported.

Russia attributes this to a rigorous forensic approach—every casualty is autopsied, and if the cause of death is for instance found to be pneumonia, even when the victim tested Covid-positive, the death is flagged as non-rona.

I call BS on that one—if I have a heart attack while driving and die in the resulting crash, what was the cause of death?

Rona is much like AIDS, a disease that is mostly an indirect cause of death. An immune system weakened by HIV provides an entry point for opportunistic diseases to kill the victim—conditions including pneumonia, tuberculosis, and Kaposi’s sarcoma, a viral cancer, are just some examples.

That’s why many nations use a straightforward assessment: if a coronavirus-positive patient dies of respiratory failure, it’s a coronavirus death. Just as with the Spanish flu one century ago, the COVID-19 strips the body of its defenses and the opportunists come knocking.

These discrepancies in assessment, caused by politics rather than public health considerations, only have one winner.

Not the world, nor the country, not the people, not the populist.

The virus.

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

Stormy Monday

May 17, 2020

In the European Union, countries are tentatively opening up. Like an old man after a bad fall, it’s all small steps and handrails.

Outside my window I can hear an airplane—first time in weeks—and a high-pitched whistle brings back childhood memories and sets the neighborhood dogs off.

A common sight in Southern Europe back in the day, and a creative use of a bicycle wheel.

It’s a knife-sharpener making his pitch—one long tone followed by a short burst of lower notes—guaranteed to tickle the tympanus of any red-blooded hound.

In Southern Europe, cafes and restaurants begin to open their doors, loosening the garotte that has strangled the hospitality industry over the last months—and increasing the risk of a new wave of virus cases.

Next Monday,  May 18th, begins a phase known in many EU countries as ‘regional responsibility’—we’ll see how it goes.

A six-day moving average shows the decline in new cases and fatalities in Portugal, back to the situation in late March, but this time on the good side of the curve.

The basis for this ‘deconfinement’—part of an outbreak of new Coronavirus terms—lies in charts like the one above; data are always ‘noisy’, so a simple smoothing method can be used for trend analysis.

Portugal has been a shining example of common sense and public responsibility, which accounts for the fact that it has less than forty percent of the Irish death rate, relative to total population.

I know a number of people who have been tested, and could easily have been tested myself—the county where I live currently offers a free test to establish whether residents have had the virus.

This is in sharp contrast to the UK, where some doctors who do frontline work for the National Health Service have been unable to get a test.

If you consider the UK deaths in proportion to Portugal, the equivalent population of Britain would be two hundred ninety-four million, rather than the existing sixty-six million—this is because the death rate in the UK is about five times the Portuguese number.

A similar analysis for the United States would mean an equivalent population of seven hundred sixty-two million, about double the actual number.

The troublesome part of all this is that while the EU curves are all flattening, the UK and US are still going up, so these calculations are over-optimistic.

Boris is safe in his seat, having just won a general election, but the orange man is on the wrong side of the cycle—November is just a heartbeat away.

The history of the Spanish influenza continues to amaze me—there is so much to be learned about the current pandemic if we would only read a little history.

The estimated fatalities in the Spanish flu of 1918 were fifty million worldwide—the US number was six hundred and fifty thousand, around 1.3% of the total.

The equivalent number today? Over twenty-eight percent of fatalities worldwide are in the United States—an extraordinarily high number, considering America’s status as a ‘developed’ nation.

As an aside, the messages coming out of the States are increasingly bizarre—the president has gone from being a national embarrassment and international joke to becoming a public danger.

I was particularly bemused by the statement ‘If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.‘ While that is certainly true, surely the number of corpses is the real issue, not the cases—and dead bodies are pretty obvious…

The recent comments about a ‘warp-speed’ vaccine are also bizarre. There are steps that must be fulfilled in order to ensure a vaccine is both safe and effective. Some of these are concurrent, but most are consecutive—you cannot test in animals and humans simultaneously.

The science behind vaccine development is so critical I enjoin you to read it here right now. This should make it clear why ‘vaccine’ and ‘warp-speed’ cannot be used in the same sentence. As Warren Buffett famously said, ‘some things just take time and patience—you can’t make a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.’

The truth is that the orang-u-tan feels the election slipping away from him—but it actually slipped away at the start of the year, as soon as it became clear that the danger and consequences of a potential pandemic had been horribly misunderstood and hopelessly mismanaged—a triumph of science over ‘gut-feeling’ at a terrible, terrible cost that pleases not a single scientist.

I guess that makes him the index case when it comes to covidiots, one of the new words spawned by the pandemic. Others that I like are blursday, since everyone loses track of time, quaranteams for teams WFH (working from home), and rona—a short name for the virus itself.

Even better, if you like cockney rhyming slang, is Miley. Miley Cyrus? Coronavirus… As in “Boris came down with the Miley.”

During the Spanish flu pandemic, some doctors tried ‘remedies’ like the typhoid vaccine, or quinine—then widely used to treat malaria. Here again we see history repeat itself with the hydroxychloroquine spoof.

Most US states are about to reopen—considering where they sit on the curve, they should consider that Miley is also ready to reopen.

In the West, Stormy Monday awaits, and there is some expectation that the EU will see a resurgence in virus cases—in the US, you can drop the prefixes—it’ll be a surge.

A further snippet of pandemic history provides food for thought. Although the index case of Spanish influenza was registered in Haskell County, Kansas, in January 1918, not only did that spring—like this one—prove tragic, but the disease emerged with far greater lethality in the fall.

Unfortunately, it did not stop there. Every subsequent year until 1922 had serious outbreaks and many deaths.

Some of the greatest medical minds continued working on the disease for decades after—during the pandemic itself the causative agent was often thought to be a bacterium called Bacillus influenzae, also known as Pfeiffer’s bacillus. The bug is now called Haemophilus influenzae—it took until 1933 to unequivocally establish the viral nature of flu.

By then, many of the great scientists who worked on the problem were getting old.

The great XIXth century  British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley once quipped, ‘A man of science past the age of sixty does more harm than good’, but Oswald Avery was sixty-five when he published a seminal paper that established that it was desoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)—rather than proteins—that carried the genes.

The year was 1944, and Avery had been working on influenza for over twenty years—he should have won the Nobel Prize (all his close colleagues did); Avery was nominated in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but died at the age of seventy-seven without the prize—one of the great injustices of the Swedish academy.

We must thank science for the advances of the last one hundred years, and for the chances that a vaccine somewhere in the middle of 2021 will get ‘rona’ under control.

After that, we’ll need to rebuild the shattered lives of so many people whose income, family stability, and self-esteem have been destroyed by the heartless selfishness and cavalier attitude of snake oil politicians.

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


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