Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

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.


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.

Deep Dream

May 2, 2020

About five years ago, Google published a set of images produced using neural network software.

Neural nets are the heart of Artificial Intelligence, and image recognition is a holy grail of computing. I know there’s only supposed to be one holy grail, but in AI there’s a few—I suppose the unifying one is to teach machines to think, in the broad sense of the word.

In human terms, thought encompasses speech—though talk without thought is commonplace—but also image interpretation and recognition.

The legendary British mathematician and wartime cypher breaker Alan Turing theorized that defining ‘thought’ was too complex a problem, and in a 1950 paper entitled ‘Computing machinery and intelligence‘ he formulated his now-famous test.

A set of questions and answers would establish beyond reasonable doubt whether your interlocutor was man or machine—or even something else.

A classic cartoon that I love to publish in these articles.

Interrogator: Is it a beautiful day where you are?

Witness: Yes, I’m surrounded by all the smells of spring.

Interrogator: Ah. What are your plans for today?

Witness: Well, I’ve had my breakfast, and now I’m planning to go for a run. And then a good snooze.

Interrogator: Eggs and bacon, was it?

Witness: A bit of a mishmash, actually. Left-over meat, biscuits, that kind of thing. But I wolfed it down.

Interrogator: No accounting for taste, I suppose.

Witness: It’s more smell, really. After that I had a really good poop.

Interrogator: That may be too much information, my friend.

Witness: On the grass. Took me a while to find the right spot. You know how it is.

Interrogator: Gross. And I certainly do not.

Witness (panting): Nothing beats the smell of a good poop.

By then the interrogator might begin to suspect his interlocutor was actually a dog—on the internet, everything is possible.

In the paper, one of Turing’s conversations began with:

Interrogator: In the first line of your sonnet which reads ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, would not ‘a spring day’ do as well or better?

Witness: It wouldn’t scan.

Interrogator: How about ‘a winter’s day’ That would scan all right.

Witness: Yes, but nobody wants to be compared to a winter’s day.

I can think of very few people nowadays who might reply in this fashion—the days of sonnets are distant indeed.

There’s a lot of work on speech recognition, and also on speech reproduction. Microsoft Word takes dictation, and Amazon makes available a speech engine for WordPress so that an article might be read to you—I may well add that here one of these days.

But these features are the simpler side of speech ‘thought’. The sonnet dialog is far more complex, and if speech rendering machines exist, then it matters little whether the words are written or spoken—the key issue is the interpretation.

My ‘Turing test’ for that is to ‘wash’ a colloquial sentence through various languages before returning to the original one. Here is an example from Google Translate.

English: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day
Russian: Должен ли я сравнить тебя с летним днем
Bahasa Indonesia: Haruskah saya membandingkan Anda dengan hari musim panas
Norwegian: Skulle jeg sammenligne deg med en varm sommerdag
Italian: Dovrei confrontarti con una calda giornata estiva
English: I should face you on a hot summer day
Polish: Powinienem stawić ci czoła w gorący letni dzień
Chinese: 我應該在炎熱的夏日面對你
Welsh: Dylwn eich wynebu ar ddiwrnod poeth o haf
Uzbek: Yozning jazirama kunida siz bilan yuzlashishim kerak
English: I have to face you on a hot summer day

It gets a lot less poetic pretty quickly. The holy grail of speech is thus glossolalia—you open your mouth in English and the other guy hears Japanese.

If you are biglot (I searched on Google and got endless links about ‘big lots’), you’re occasionally asked whether you think in a particular language—my brain regularly does that in two distinct languages—and there’s no doubt the thought pattern is intimately connected with language.

If you can choose between two or more, particularly if the language structure is different, it conditions how you examine a problem and reach a solution—this is an asset because if you are true biglot or triglot, you have the cultural experience of those languages also, and that experience colors your judgement—being a bigot is not sufficient, you must be a biglot.

Google and many others have been trying to do interpretation with images. They used the classic training approach—provide a computer with thousands of images and let it crunch so it can tell you what a tree looks like, and how it differs, say, from a house.

Google called their project Deep Dream. In the process of recognizing an object, the AI software draws its own vision—the results are straight of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception and Albert Hofmann’s lysergic acid diethylamide.

An example of Deep Dream art which brings back a few memories of my misspent youth.

Incidentally, April 19th is celebrated every year by LSD fans as Bicycle Day, to commemorate Hofmann’s famous bicycle trip, if you excuse the pun. As an aside, I normally only provide links, but in this case I’m endorsing the link—not because it’s Scientific American, but because it’s a hilarious read!

A couple of years after Deep Dream art began appearing—Deep Dream video also, like this total freakout version of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—an even freakier idea appeared.

A guy called Gabriel Goh decided to put two neural networks together. The first engine was produced at MIT and does a similar job to Deep Dream, but the second is an open-source AI pornography filter made available by Yahoo.

When the images were processed using this combination of neural nets, the computer developed a salacious streak. Pictures of towers became penises, sand dunes became vaginas—all with that Orange Sunshine tint that the AI computers seem so keen on.

An assortment of computer-generated penis and vagina pics to please all audiences.

The images generated become more or less explicit depending on the scoring algorithm. Low scores are considered work-safe, high scores are likely to cause a bit of a stir at the office.

Good job we’re working from home.

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

Tiger King

April 25, 2020

While the stock market collapses, a few companies have been leaping up. Predictably, Amazon and other home delivery businesses, but also home entertainment companies like Netflix, have made a quick comeback—I don’t believe this pattern will last, in this most unpredictable year.

During the lockdown period observed in much of Europe and parts of North America, folks have been going pretty crazy—what New York Governor Andre Cuomo aptly described as cabin fever, while extolling the virtues of immigrants, who are busy keeping essential services running for everyone.

Cabin fever breeds all sorts of behavior—not so much new foibles but an exacerbation of existing ones—we’re creatures of habit, and 2020 is anything but habitual. Street crime is down, as are burglaries and rapes, but domestic violence is up—in France, it’s up thirty percent.

And Tiger King, a heady mixture of petty conflict, gay polygamy, guns, and fake news has gone er… viral. This is a good fit with the daily orange man press conference, the 5G mast attacks, and the rumor mill of Chinese labs releasing COVID-19 on an unsuspecting world.

While the new Netflix series certainly isn’t worth watching, it’s instructive to go through a couple of episodes—they show the worst America has to offer: a collection of people devoid of morality, the disenfranchised abused by ruthless business operators, animals kept in dubious conditions, sexual predators of the human variety, jail as a common transit point—in essence, all the messages you would wish to shield your child from.

I can’t help associating this metaphor to the behavior of the current US president. Every afternoon, he rolls out a select panel of government members and public health officials and puts on a circus act for the nation.

Like Tiger King, his objective is to keep folks coming back every day—ratings are what matter—and everyone forgets about Joe Biden. This is a smart course of action for a man who needs to be in the limelight, a strategy that is poorly understood by the public.

Trump is naturally bombastic, but at these daily ‘briefings’ he exceeds himself. Unlike the rally paradigm, where the president boasted to the converted—Tiger King folks who know little better—his audience here is small, well informed, and critical.

This makes for shouting matches with reporters—CNN in particular—reminiscent of the mutual accusations traded in the big cat show.

I have no doubt that much of what comes from Trump is stream of (un)consciousness, and if it generates controversy, all the better—that’s what ratings are all about.

At the start of these briefings, which indicate that the president has taken over the job of press secretary, believing he can do a better job in self-promotion, the various unfortunates who shared the bully pulpit crowded round the orange man, clearly rejecting any physical distancing.

Now the rules have changed—while Pence poodles in the background as the presidential pet, Dr. Deborah Birx holds forth at the podium—six feet away, the president stands staring at her, his face alternating between frowns of disagreement and incomprehension.

The last time this behavior was on display was during the 2016 debates, when Hillary Clinton was stalked around the stage by a menacing-looking orange creature.

There’s plenty of material here for new episodes of Tiger King, including the administration of  intravenous Dettol as a cure for big cat ailments, or ultraviolet endoscopes and skin applicators—UVA for rapid ageing and UVB for skin cancer.

I find the ultraviolet concept particularly attractive—through the fast onset of wrinkles, it will be possible to develop a narrative that only older folks are victims, and by killing them off with melanoma, the death rate from Coronavirus will rapidly decrease, allowing the economy to safely re-open.

Unfortunately, the economic consequences of the current public health crisis are much deeper than the level at which they are being discussed.

Countries that thrive on international tourism are in a particularly bad way—in Southern Europe, Turkey, and North Africa, this summer is going to be a total washout. The same applies to Bali, Thailand, Brazil, and Caribbean destinations.

And if the virus infection has a peak in the fall, that will destroy the Christmas market also—we’re stuck between a vaccine and pot luck.

Apart from the fact that most restaurants and hotels have been shut for the past month or so and employees have been laid off or fired, the reliance of the tourism infrastructure on international guests is a major liability.

Tourists from Northern Europe and North America are unlikely to be booking holidays to exotic destinations this summer, partly due to the economic situation at home, but also the natural reticence of folks to wander too far astray at a time like this—the tendency will be to stay closer to home, where a return to a safe space is easier and where health services are familiar.

Oil prices have seen a major downturn, demonstrating that the market only briefly reacts to initiatives such as the US-driven Saudi-Russian talks. The market responds… to the market (duh).

But many other commodities are facing difficulties with overstocking—shellfish are a particular example, since for many consumers seafood is typically hotel and restaurant fare. The big European and North American producers of oysters and mussels are facing serious business challenges— as are shrimp producers in Asia serving the fresh market.

The high-value capture fisheries industry for lobster, crab, and scallops faces similar problems.

Consumer sentiment is unlikely to bounce back, contrary to the joyous tidings proclaimed from the White House pulpit by Don Exotic.

After a bad fall, you walk a lot slower.

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

Spanish Flu

April 19, 2020

The history of the Spanish flu of 1918 is fascinating. The first curiosity is the name—it wasn’t Spanish at all. In a world where global communications were literally light years from where we are now, the name is thought to originate from censorship—or in this case, lack of it.

In a Europe locked down in a world war, Spain was one of the few neutral nations. As a consequence, the press freely discussed the influenza epidemic, in contrast to the warring parties—England, France, Germany, all refused to harm troop morale by revealing the truth. As Bismarck famously said, there are three occasions when men never tell the truth: before the election, during the war, and after the hunt.

Of course, Spain itself also dodged the bullet when syphilis arrived in Europe on the ships of Columbus—by the early XVIth century the disease had become the French Pox.

But both poxes have one thing in common—they originated in North America. In the case of syphilis, the origin will have been Guanahani, Cuba, or perhaps Hispaniola—the Castilian conquistadores weren’t fussy about where the rape and pillage took place.

The index case for Spanish Flu, on the other hand, can be traced to Haskell County, Kansas.

Canadian guidelines for Spanish flu and instructions on masks.

In early 1918, a country doctor called Loring Miner submitted a note about the Kansas outbreak to a US journal called Public Health Reports—this was the only mention of influenza published in that journal during the first six months of 1918.

Dr. Miner was well-respected in his community—a recurring comment was, “I’d rather have him drunk than someone else sober.”

Haskell County was a poor area where people lived in sod houses for want of other building materials, an area where hog farming was a way of life—and 1918 was an unusually bad year for swine flu. Haskell is still small—population in 2000 was 3,976—and one hundred years ago the mix of people, pigs, and poultry resembled parts of China today.

Birds carry many more flu viruses than humans, and although normally those viruses don’t ‘jump’, birds infect pigs and pigs infect us—if the virus mutates to propagate among humans, you have the recipe for a pandemic.

Given the type of community in the Haskell area, and the violence with which the ‘Spanish’ flu hit the population—young, strong people were suddenly struck down, pneumonia ensued, folks began to die—the key question for this isolated area of the Midwest is: if the disease didn’t originate there, then how the hell did it get there?

After much resistance, America entered the First World War on April 6th, 1917—President Woodrow Wilson had vehemently opposed the move, but when it finally happened, US recruits were stationed in cantonments throughout the country—one of these was Camp Funston, the 14th National Army Cantonment, located at Fort Riley, west of Topeka, Kansas.

The Haskell County outbreak was in January and February. All army recruits from Haskell reported to Camp Funston for training, interspersed with home visits. The next outbreak was in March at Fort Riley—eleven hundred soldiers were hospitalized and many more were ill. One of the patterns that quickly emerged was that this new flu attacked young men and women in a way that was not at all typical of previous influenza epidemics.

In contrast to the seasonal influenza strains of previous years, the Spanish Flu cut down those in the prime of life.

Soldiers moved among the various US cantonments—By March 18th, two camps in Georgia were infected, and by the end of April, two-thirds of American cantonments had suffered from the epidemic. From the United States, the soldiers took the disease to Brest, in northern France, which was the main disembarkation port for the troop ships.

The ‘Spanish’ flu had two stages—during the first, the hemorrhagic nature of the disease became clear—patients bled from the nose and ears, and autopsies showed lungs full of blood lesions. But it was the second stage, which hit in the fall, that was the real killer.

An excellent description of the pandemic to which the current crisis is often compared is provided in the award-winning book ‘The Great Influenza’ by John Barry.

In it, the reaction of the authorities in Philadelphia provides a sobering perspective on what we observe a century later (I condense and adapt Barry’s text below).

The Director of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and Charities was Dr. Krusen, a political appointment by Mayor Thomas B. Smith. The flu epidemic swept through Philadelphia naval facilities, but Krusen did nothing. Or rather, he publicly denied that flu posed any threat to the city—there were no contingency plans, no stockpiled supplies, and no lists of emergency medical staff. He took a week to even schedule a meeting with physicians who alerted him to the drama surrounding him.

After hundreds of sailors were hospitalized, Paul Lewis, an eminent doctor from the University of Pennsylvania‘s Henry Phipps Institute called for a quarantine. Krusen refused, on the grounds it would harm wartime morale (think re-election).

He did however agree to start a campaign against coughing, spitting, or sneezing.

A public health poster on a Philadelphia streetcar during the 1918 pandemic.

A Philly newspaper called The Evening Bulletin (think Fox) ‘informed’ its readers that ‘influenza posed no danger, was as old as history, and was usually accompanied by a great miasma, foul air, and plagues of insects, none of which were occurring in Philadelphia’ (think magically goes away in April).

Krusen told reporters people weren’t dying from an epidemic, just ‘old-fashioned influenza or grip.’ The next day, fourteen sailors died—and one civilian. The following day, twenty died.

The Board of Health then made the disease notifiable, but endorsed Director Krusen’s view that it was not an epidemic. Their advice? ‘stay warm, keep the feet dry, and the bowels open.’

A week later, Philadelphia held a massive Liberty Loan parade to sell millions of dollars of war bonds. The day before the 28th September parade, two hundred more people—one hundred twenty-three of whom civilians—were admitted to hospital. Krusen refused to cancel the parade.

The parade stretched for two miles, hundreds of thousands attended, crushing together to see the show.

Two days after the parade—the incubation period for influenza—Krusen issued a statement. “The epidemic is now present in the civilian population and is assuming the type found in naval stations and cantonments.”

This is a short history lesson on how a pandemic turns into pandemonium.

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

The Year of Ecology

April 11, 2020

Outside my window, a little girl is tentatively playing the notes to Beethoven’s Ode To Joy on a child’s piano. The tune wafts up, hesitant, a wrong note here and there, and despite the fact that I’m more of a Roll Over Beethoven type of guy, it gives me a profound sense of peace. Apart from the slow tinkle of the keys, there’s not a sound in the air. Even the wagtails and blackbirds that live in the tall pines are silent—in the blue sky above, the ragged bursts of white fluff are untouched by the crisscross of contrails.

All is balmy, as nature warms up to its key springtime display—the grand shag.

And it is doing so with great gusto, because this is the first time in many decades when mankind has retreated—not for the usual reason, i.e. bombing the shit out of each other, but due to a force larger than itself, yet only two hundred nanometers across.

Vanishingly small, incredibly abundant—the first plague of the new millennium.

The influenza virus looks like a pillbox with a diameter of 200 nm—a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. If we use simple geometry to calculate the volume of that pillbox (a SWAG—Scientific Wild Ass Guess—reveals that the height is 10 nm), and assume that its density is similar to that of human tissue ( 1 gram per cubic centimeter), we can estimate that one of these little boogers weighs 3.14 X 10-16 g. But there are an estimated 1031 virus particles on the planet—not all corona, you’ll be pleased to hear—so that gives a combined weight of about 3 X 1015 g, or three billion metric tonnes.

Compare that with three hundred million tons of humans, and they beat us to a pulp. For each cell in the human body, there are one hundred million virus particles.

Okay, the good news is that (i) most viruses attack bacteria; (ii) many are smaller than two hundred nanometers so the overall mass is less; and (iii) the stats for each cell are lower—for a fair comparison, we should use only the viruses that attack humans.

Despite these palliative points, in this David and Goliath battle we may well find that we turn out to be David. So let’s hope medicine can come up with a good sling shot—not a slingshot, mark you.

This is certainly not the year of the economy—rather in many respects it’s the Year of Ecology.

All over the planet, our fellow organisms are teaching us a much-needed lesson. The dolphins that appeared in the Grand Canal of Venice, and many other species that have returned to their one-time ecological niches on land, air, and water gave us an important sign—one that we have deliberately chosen to ignore as we sacrifice our world to the gods of economic growth.

When I discussed E.O. Wilson’s book, Half-Earth, I quoted an asinine US journalist called Emma Marris, who declared:

Our true role as rulers of the planet is to turn its biodiversity into a global, half-wild rambunctious garden tended by us.

It’s this arrogance that nature has now addressed—the dictionary definition of ‘rambunctious’ is uncontrollably exuberant—I guess someone missed the adverb.

Whenever humans stop what they’re doing, nature responds in a good way. If we are more considerate about how we treat the organisms that accompany us in this journey through life, many things will be better—water quality, air quality, more beauty, less stress.

If we are not—if we abhorrently crowd the poor creatures that we eat, if we pay no regard to the natural laws of reproduction, if we fail to understand density-dependent mortality… then nature responds in an entirely different way.

A map of the US published by the New York Times is an clear example of density-dependent infection, and at a lower rate, density-dependent mortality.

This is James Lovelock’s Gaia showing its fangs—not as a sentient being, I don’t subscribe to that concept—but by providing the enabling conditions for other species to thrive by taking advantage of our own errors.

And what are those errors? This is a blog, not a litany—despite the Easter period—but at the very least we as humans need to understand the ecological concept of carrying capacity, which predicates that at a certain point a climax community will exist in an ecosystem. Such a community is an idealized state, where biodiversity is optimal and growth in terms of biomass and other metrics has reached a plateau—think ‘flattening the curve.’

There is one area where ecology and economics converge—resources are limited, whether measured in carbon, silicon, or any other indicator—except money, which is a virtual commodity and therefore has the potential to destroy us when it becomes an indicator of mistrust.

As the great spring shag begins, plants and animals will benefit from our reduced activity—lower emissions, less pollution—and the resulting environmental improvements. In that kind of situation, ecosystems shift.

It is quite possible that the new species that colonize these habitats as they recover will displace whatever is now there—whenever the economy restarts we will start to see a rollback to status quo ante—except that ecology has taught us about regime shift, which is the manager’s nightmare, and it applies equally to the economy.

Systems—of both ‘eco’ flavors—will come back via a different route, i.e. will undergo regime shift, and if that wasn’t enough, they will return to a different baseline.

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

Under the Influence

April 4, 2020

ab occulta coeli influential

The Latin words loosely translate as ‘the secrets of heavenly influence’, and the phrase has been around for centuries—at least since the days of Vasco da Gama and Columbus.

In this year of tragedy, folks often say they’ve never seen anything like this before—I’m talking about Americans, Europeans… You certainly won’t hear that from people in Hong Kong, Liberia, or Sierra Leone.

Westerners born between 1928 and 1945—the so-called Silent Generation—do remember similar measures because of World War II. In particular, they are familiar with confinement and food restrictions, albeit for different reasons.

But to most of the Western World, pandemics were a thing of the past—or like child sex, something you only find in a distant land—Southeast Asia, or Sub-Saharan Africa.

There’s no good reason for imagining the West would be pandemic-free—not now, not ever. You don’t need to get morbid about it—after all, we all know we’re going to die, and it’s sensible to reflect on that periodically and plan, rather than mope—you need to be aware.

In practical terms, that means two things: (i) an understanding that science and technology—not religious mumbo-jumbo or trusting your gut—are what make modern human society so successful; and (ii) holding politicians’ feet to the fire—if needed, chucking the cretins themselves into the flames—when they refuse to provide strategic direction rather than reactive bullshit.

But there’s one more thing folks need to do—yes, it’s the usual suspect—learn the lessons of history.

Tommasino de Bianchi wrote this account of the first documented flu pandemic.

Item […] in questo dì 13 lujo in sabato […] non ge reman de polastri in piaza, tuti o la mazor parte son comprati per amalati che son in Modena de una malatia che dura 5 dì con una gran febra, e doglia de testa, e poi se levano e non pare che siano quelli, ma ge reman una tosse teribile che ge dura forse 8 dì et poi se vano liberande a pocho a pocho e de le 10 caxade le 8 ge n’è de amalati et in tal taxe son tuti per tera, e nesuno non perisse

An article in The Lancet translates part of this chronicle as “On this day…in Modena there appeared an illness that lasts three days with a great fever and headache, and then they rise…but there remains a terrible cough that lasts maybe eight days, and then little by little they recover and do not perish.”

Influenza timeline published in 2010 to mark five centuries of flu pandemics. Dr. Anthony Fauci is a co-author of this viewpoint article.

Except they did perish, although not in large numbers. Before this pandemic, scattered historical records exist of a flu outbreak in the mid-XIIIth century, six in the XIVth century, and four in the 1400s, but the 1510 pandemic caused a paradigm shift—by 1546, there was a theory of infectious diseases, although the world had to wait three centuries until Koch and Pasteur to know what the vectors actually were.

The 1510 flu pandemic can be traced to travel between North Africa and Sicily, but is thought to have originated in Asia—by the early XVIth century, the Portuguese had opened the trade routes to the orient, Castile had done the same for the Americas, and the slave trade from Africa had taken hold. It caught Europe at a pincer moment—a continent still severely depopulated after the Black Death and now plagued by a new disease called syphilis, freshly arrived from America.

From Sicily, the flu spread north to cities like Modena, home of the Cantino planisphere. Through July and August, as the epidemic raced through Europe, it took on new names: coqueluche, poppy, tussis quinta

By the time the pandemics of 1557 and 1580 had occurred, a trend could be seen, as described by Dr. Fauci and his colleagues.

influenza came to be recognized as a distinct disease with consistent clinical features… …its epidemiologic features were understood to include explosive spread with high attack rates and directional movement along travel or trade routes, prevalence in a town or city for no more than 4–6 weeks, appearance at unpredictable intervals and at any time of year

Sound familiar?

These pandemics typically showed low to moderate mortality rates. The table below, condensed from Wikipedia, shows those rates for a range of different diseases.

Case Fatality Rates (CFR) for a selection of different infectious diseases.

Disease Treatment CFR
Ebola virus disease Untreated & Unvaccinated 83–90%
AIDS/HIV infection Untreated 80–90%
Anthrax Untreated & Unvaccinated > 85%
Influenza A virus H5N1 ~ 60%
Bubonic plague Untreated & Unvaccinated 5–60%
Tetanus, Generalized Untreated & Unvaccinated 0.5
MERS 0.35
Smallpox, Variola major Unvaccinated 0.3
Typhoid fever Untreated & Unvaccinated 10–20%
SARS 0.11
1918 (Spanish) flu Treated > 2.5%
Mumps encephalitis Unvaccinated ~ 1%
Malaria ~ 0.3%
Hepatitis A Unvaccinated 0.1–0.3%
Asian (1956–58) flu ~ 0.1%
Influenza A, pandemics < 0.1%
Varicella (chickenpox) Unvaccinated 0.0002

Coronavirus was included, with a quoted fatality rate of ~5.39%, which I don’t believe. First, it makes no sense to use ~ (about) and then quote a number accurate to two decimal places, particularly when no other number is reported with that level of precision, and second, the data now emerging from the nations that test properly, such as Germany and South Korea, put the death rate at perhaps 1-2% of CFR. Countries reporting higher death rates, such as the United Kingdom (10.3%), Brazil (4.2%), and the United States (2.7%) simply aren’t testing enough.

A major step in the history of influenza was the realization that it was also a disease of other mammals and of birds. Scientists have been aware since the late XIXth century of the link between avian and human influenza—for over one hundred years, we’ve known that this virus can jump.

History repeats itself, and we fail to learn from it at our peril.

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

Murder Most Foul

March 28, 2020

Last week I told you we need music at this time, so today I’m going down that road.

Yesterday Bob Dylan released a new song called ‘Murder Most Foul.’

What’s it about? The seventy-nine year old Nobel Laureate would reply, “Oh, it’s about seventeen minutes,” and flash his ironic iconic smin—that’s a cross between a smirk and a grin.

The analysts, of which I am one, were quick to point out that it’s his longest song ever. It bests tunes such as A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Gates of Eden, It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), or Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.

When you listen to Murder Most Foul, you realize it has little pretence of a tune—in essence it’s a poem recited to some background piano lines, vaguely drifting along the standard blues theme, with a drumbeat coloring the mix here and there.

I closed my eyes yesterday lunchtime in the bright sunshine of early spring, buds in my ears to shut off extraneous sounds, and let my mind wander through seventeen minutes of poetry—it was like a journey through my life.

No one is exactly sure when this was recorded, since Dylan has put out nothing for eight years, and this release—along with eight other songs—was accompanied by a cryptic tweet:

Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.

I would interpret the last sentence in light of coronavirus, and perhaps ‘observant’ as keeping a watchful eye on politicians—you know who you are.

After all, this is the man who wrote:

Come senators, Congressmen, please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he who gets hurt, will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’Il soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

and who told us in ‘It’s Alright Ma’ that Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.

Only Dylan is able to give us a poem of rambling coherence, starting with the shooting of JFK and ending with darkness and death, and in those seventeen minutes—enough for almost six songs back in the days of the three-minute single—cover the gamut of American popular music, with a few Brit names thrown in for good measure.

While Dylan goes full circle round the events of Dealey Plaza, he takes us from Gone With The Wind to Charlie Parker, with references to heroin and the famous blues crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which I was fortunate enough to visit this time last year.

On the way he crosses the Mersey, chats to Pete Townshend, speaks with Benny Siegel, the legendary (and crazy, i.e. ‘bugsy’—but not to his face if you valued yours) Jewish gangster, and touches down in Love Field, Dallas, where Texan Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president at 2:38 pm on Friday, 22nd November 1963.

When I sent the link to a friend yesterday she thought Trump had been shot, a reminder of the difficult times we are traveling now. Bill Gates, who probably knows more about medicine than quite a few medical professionals, was on CNN a couple of days ago talking about the partial shutdown and partial reopening—once again, the emphasis is on the economy rather than public health, and the price will be huge.

Folks don’t realize that the orang-u-tan will do what he does best, since he’s an expert in reactive ‘management’. No one in their right mind will pack churches at Easter, and the ecclesiastical authorities should be the first to firmly address the faithful on that subject—for Catholics, that means the pope, for the multitude of other US flavors of Christianity, it means homegrown church leaders, many of whom are too beholden to party politics to stand up and be counted.

When asked about US states with two hundred cases, Gates mentions an infection rate of thirty-three percent per day. A very simple model projects that to half a million cases inside a month—go do it in Excel.

Now factor in a 3.4% mortality rate, according to World Health Organization estimates—total infection halves, but at a cost—thirty-six thousand dead. Fascinating numbers. Then review this analysis in The Lancet, which discusses the uncertainty of the CFR, or Case Fatality Rate, estimates, and plug in 0.99%.

Oh, before you do that, understand, as Gates does, that growth is exponential, so rounding up to 1% makes a big difference. Here are the numbers, crunched for you on a beautiful sunny Saturday, when hospitals all over Spain are at breaking point, and the only music you hear in the packed corridors is the chorus of a dry cough.

The numbers tell a story: 0.99% gives you over four hundred thousand infected in a month, and seventeen thousand deaths. That tiny 0.01% change? After thirty days it’s an extra one thousand cases.

So we’re all sorcerers’ apprentices now, and we should definitely take this a lot more seriously than the president of the United States is doing. Except of course he will explain to everyone when things go tits up that he never said anything like this at all, shout down a few reporters and claim fake news, and come out squeaky clean, inheriting the mantle of Teflon Don from the late John Gotti.

Customer in a hazmat suit at a European supermarket. I spent some time stalking him through the aisles in search of the ideal snap.

But my reflections today are about music, so let me spend the last couple of lines on the one name that Dylan mentions almost as much as Kennedy. I’m talking about the Wolf, Wolfman, Wolfman Jack.

I first came across him in the cult movie American Graffiti, a must for any fan of rock ‘n roll. He’s the guy with the gravelly voice who plays, well, himself as DJ of the new music sweeping the world in the nineteen sixties.

His emblematic style (‘lay your hands on the radio and squeeze my knobs’) and fabulous music choices made him a favorite all over the US, and artists like Jim Morrison, Leon Russell, and Freddie King wrote him into their songs.

So take your seventeen minutes of quarantine, close your eyes, open your mind, and enjoy the sunshine.

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

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