Archive for the ‘Technology’ 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.

Blue Notes

May 9, 2020

My love affair with music got off to a rocky start when I was eight or nine years old. The Rabbit decided it would be a good thing to put me in a conservatory—no, not a greenhouse enclosure, though lord knows I deserved it, but a music school. Apparently in the UK it’s also called a ‘conservatoire’—oh, how posh!

My memories are of cold, wet nights in the hilly, old part of town, rain shining off the black and white cobblestones, and a musty ancient building with large wooden double doors. Inside, various rooms with high ceilings and crumbling plaster, containing serious and aged people tasked with teaching kids music theory and making them repeat vocal exercises that numbed everyone into oblivion.

I cannot remember a single thing I was taught, so I can conclude I learnt nothing.

But a couple of years later I discovered rock ‘n roll, and it changed my life forever. By then I had developed a life-long aversion to structured learning and a great interest in learning by doing—the Rabbit bought me a fifteen dollar guitar.

It was made by the Suzuki Violin Company of Nagoya, Japan and bore the number 34. Now, Suzuki may sound exotic, but it’s the second most common name in the land (as opposed to the house) of the rising sun—the equivalent of Johnson in the United States.

Suzuki means bell wood, and Johnson means er… Johnson, so I can see a connection there also, but I digress. I now had a guitar and an epiphany—the guitar was right-handed but I was a southpaw.

Some decades—and many guitars—later, I found the Suzuki Spanish guitar, hundreds of miles from my home, and in surprisingly good shape. I had it properly set up—a number of changes needed to be made to turn it into a leftie—and in the process added another guitar to my collection.

More than one guitar.jpg

School was very different in those days—I had a teacher who played guitar during woodwork lessons—the students would begin sawing and nailing and he would chill out and play a beautiful dreadnought steel-string instrument. Those of us in the class whose interest in music exceeded our enthusiasm for carpentry almost sawed our hands off in excitement.

My first chords were learnt from the photocopied sheets he gave to his music students. I didn’t get those from the classes, I got them from a girl who took the classes—I was all done with lessons. He was a cool teacher, with long hair and hippie ties, in a Portugal that was paralyzed by fascism, dark suits, and short back and sides.

Not long after, I got hold of a book that showed the five pentatonic scales—the mothership of playing the blues. There was a big black guy with a Gibson electric guitar on the cover, and the book was full of weird and wonderful names I’d never heard of—Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King—in fact a whole courtload of kings.

And the little book illustrated how they played—their style. The bending, the hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, everything that turned a guitar solo into a quasi-sexual experience.

And it didn’t have a single sentence on music theory—I was in heaven.

After many years of playing the blues without a care in the world (oh, the paradox) I’ve used the triple C—Coronavirus confinement context—to get into some of the music theory, and it’s been fun.

The major doh-re-mi bla bla scale—which most of us can have a sporting try at humming—was corrupted by the early bluesmen by ‘flattening’ some of the notes. The entire major scale (including the first and last doh or C) has eight notes, and the blues flatten the third (mi or E), fifth (sol or G) and seventh (si or B)—which is why they’re called blue notes.

Its always struck me that the guitar fretboard is a picture of mathematical logic—a direct consequence of the mathematical basis of music—and I’ve always liked math, so maybe that’s why I like music.

What I didn’t realize is that there are seven scales, and they all have Greek names—the ancient Greeks were good at math, and they figured all this stuff out. So the major scale is Ionian, and the minor scale is Aeolian, named after the Greek god of winds.

And there’s even a Lydian scale—I’d love to think it was named after my Rabbit.

I like the seven scales—it goes with the seven days of the week, the seven heavens of Christianity, and the seven notes of each scale. It all has a nice ring of Illuminati and conspiracy theory.

The master of the seventh is of course Muddy Waters, as you will see from the second verse of his classic tune, Hoochie Coochie Man. And when you’ve seen that one, watch Clapton put it to bed.

As for me, it’s time to go see how my Suzie is doing.

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.

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.

The Black Death

March 22, 2020

Last week, the ISIS newsletter al-Naba had a gem for its readers.

The healthy should not enter the land of the epidemic and the afflicted should not exit from it.

This was taken to mean that terrorists should not travel into Europe or other parts of the West where the current flavor of coronavirus is flourishing—it led to a rash of commentary in Western, Indian, and Arab media.

Most of those comments were er… rash, and this week’s edition of the terrorist organization’s newsletter dispels any comfort that it has no plans for renewed attacks in Europe.

And they must have no pity for the disbelievers and the apostates even as they are at the height of their tribulation, and they must intensify the pressure on them so they become more pressured and incapable of harming the Muslims by the permission of God the Lord of the Worlds.

It’s a particularly risky time for such an attack—the suicide bombers will be  home-grown, as they largely have been, and I suspect they won’t be too concerned about dying from the pandemic—the timing will most likely be the predicted infection peak.

This lack of concern mirrors Trump’s approach over the past two and a half months—enough intelligence material was circulating in the corridors of power in DC to prompt alleged insider trading by various senators on both sides of the aisle, but as usual the president’s gut knew best.

The US reacted far too slowly and in a completely fragmented fashion—at the federal level it focused on the economy instead of public health, like someone trying to fight melanoma with cold cream.

Finally, some of the right noises are coming from above, mainly from Anthony Fauci, head of NIAID, and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force—a man worthy of respect.

Trump, on the other hand, is adept at sowing confusion, with glib suggestions about the efficacy of the malarial drug hydroxychloroquin—the most up-to-date information from the Centers For Disease Control is not nearly so sanguine, but folks don’t read that—they stick to Twitter and WhatsApp.

On March 18th, Bill Ackman, CEO of Pershing Square Capital, raised the bar on CNBC, asking for America to shut down, along with affected areas in the rest of the world—governors in several US states have shown clear leadership on this while the federal government showed none.

In the United Kingdom, the approach has been similar—the tail wagging the dog. The narrative from the prime minister is as confusing as his hairstyle, drifting from tepid to lukewarm—Brexit lurks everywhere, since the government cannot possibly align with the EU in this brave new world. Finally, the pubs are shut, following Ireland’s lead one week ago—and it took balls to shut them forty-eight hours before St. Patrick’s day!

Leadership, balls and ovaries, and good ideas—Yossi Sheffi, director of MIT’s CTF, came up with a brace of them this week—my favorites? 3-D printing of ventilators, one-way aisles in supermarkets, and getting rid of the asinine term ‘social distancing’ by calling it what it actually is—physical distancing.

And when it comes to leadership and balls, observers have been quick to point out the contrast between Andrew Cuomo’s pledge that ‘the buck stops on my desk’, contrasting it with the president’s utter rejection of responsibility.

The analogy between republican president Herbert Hoover’s mishandling of the Great Depression and the leadership shown by Franklin D. Roosevelt, then democrat governor of New York, escapes no one, particularly in an election year.

As the song goes, and we need music at this terrible time, it makes me wonder.

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

It’s the Ecology, Stupid!

March 14, 2020

I was looking forward to going to the US at the end of the month—both coasts, wonderful plans—everything canceled.

As a consolation prize, I drove to Spain yesterday to pick up a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy—the AKC describes the ridgeback as a ‘renaissance hound‘ but I have no idea what that means.

As soon as the digital border was crossed, my radio flipped to Onda Cero and I was subjected to an excitable babble of panic-lisping about the coronavirus.

I drove through Extremadura in the thinnest of traffic, and when I stopped at a gas station on the highway, the entire shop was locked down. I bought some washer fluid through a night-pay hatch—at 5 pm—and the guy who served me looked like he’d seen a ghost. All I could think about was The Day of the Triffids.

The anchor on the radio said Spain was expected to top ten thousand cases—with delicate irony, the minister for equality had just tested positive—and the signs on the highway simply said ¡Quédate en casa!

On the way to Spain, I ate lunch at a favorite spot on the Portuguese side of the border. By the time I leave, the place is usually teeming with Spaniards, drawn in by the excellent seafood and the great prices—queues past the door are the norm, kids run amok, and a small bar outside serves barrel-loads of beer to waiting patrons—but today there were six people eating.

Europe is closed but the Shengen borders are open. The different EU nations know perfectly well how to self-regulate, and there’s no better example in the world than Italy—a democracy that shone a beacon of leadership in everything: testing, disclosure, and mitigation.

Every nation in Europe has a policy in place—in Portugal, schools and universities have closed, and restaurants can admit only one third of their current capacity—I shall shortly be putting that rule to the test.

It’s outrageous to hear pundits on the US TV channels attempt to rationalize Trump’s cretinous decision to stop travel from the EU (and now also the UK and Ireland) because of free movement in Europe—the virus escalation in the US has just started, yet anyone can travel from California to Oregon, from Florida to Tennessee, without any restrictions—European Union means exactly that.

It’s quite normal to lie about the economy, foreign relations, home affairs, and voter support—most politicians do it at one time or other, though none as consistently as the current US president—I grew up in a totalitarian country where government-mediated disinformation was the norm, but in a vibrant democracy like the United States there is consistent push-back and Trump and his minions continually struggle to contain the criticism.

You can lie about biodiversity, about climate change, and other issues related to ecology—although if there are only five species left on earth, or the ocean has risen to the height of your dining room table, the narrative becomes slightly less robust.

In the end it wasn’t Stormy Daniels or the series of other women allegedly abused by Trump who brought him down, not the perennial lies, denials, and flip-flops—it’s the ecology, stupid.

And yes, I know he’s not down yet, but this is the closest it’s been—I can smell it. And the irony that a Chinese virus will achieve what American democracy seems unable to do is unmissable.

Why ecology? Because nature doesn’t lie. You can’t borrow, print, or obfuscate your way out of trouble when people are dying from a disease like this—not in a democracy you can’t—dead is dead.

Everyday fibs generate little response—but reassurance about a pathogenic agent by a pathological liar is another matter. The narrative of excuses and fabrications about contagion, testing, and treatment is patently pathetic, as is the coterie of sycophants.

Someone (members of the CDC please raise your hand) remind this gaggle of clowns that three to six feet is a prudent distance to avoid contagion.

As the human race morphed into Übermensch—that’s not a novelty cab driver, by the way—biology was replaced with economics. From our elevated heights, we wallowed in the constructs built by the master race—many so fictional we are unable to predict an interest rate next year or an exchange rate next month.

With people like Trump at the helm—a giant helm for tiny hands—the initial measures taken to fight Covid-19 practically all focused on minimizing economic impact, when the key emphasis, as well as the discourse, should have placed biology front and center.

This is a recipe followed by epidemiologists worldwide—predicated on detection, confinement, treatment, and transparency, and tested on the battlefields of Ebola and Bird Flu—shithole-country epidemics one and all. Instead, we got disingenuous and callous TV video bites, and five-second pseudo-clarifications.

The results were predictable: confidence tanked and the stock market dived. Yesterday the market came rocketing back up after a drop not seen since 1987. Next week it will drop again as more cases and more deaths are inevitably reported  in the press—economic concerns condition the tough public health measures needed in the US from a president who always put his self-interest at the core of any decision.

A young houndette contemplates the American president’s chances in 2020.

Key crisis management measures have not been put in place internally for fear of jeopardizing the November election—American lives are being sacrificed for the putative benefit of one man.

In parallel, two other things are abundantly clear: (i) disbanding key government departments to please the voting public is dumb; (ii) surrounding yourself with a coterie of brown-nosers who salute the emperor’s new clothes is even dumber.

Panic has set in, as evidenced by a key indicator—Costco ran out of toilet paper. I am bemused—I can only speculate that those cardboard centers are used for some kinky sexual act that has never penetrated (excuse the pun) my sheltered existence. But on the other hand, I have laid down a few weeks’ supply of red wine.

In the United States, people infected with coronavirus will continue to die. The fact that they may end up giving their lives to save American democracy will be cold comfort.

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

The Chinese Pox

March 8, 2020

Pox is a contracted (excuse the pun) form of pockes. The use of ‘x’ in spelling, as in ‘thanx’ or ‘trax’, is usually a US contribution to the English language, but ‘pox’ dates back to the XVIth century.

A pocke (as in pockmarked) meant a blister or pustule, and pox soon became a generic description for diseases that mark the skin, like smallpox and chickenpox.

The invasion of Naples by the French in 1494 led to the appearance of the French Pox—as the English called it—or syphilis, a disease that ravaged Europe over the following centuries. In fact, the disease was not French at all—it had been brought from the New World by the Spaniards who sailed with Columbus.

Subsequent poxes have caused mayhem in human populations, and for centuries served as an effective population control. Overcrowding, poor hygiene, promiscuity, and pollution have been traditional drivers of epidemics, but by the first quarter of the twentieth century medical science had progressed sufficiently to control many bacterial, viral, and parasitic diseases.

This gave comfort to the Western World, although lack of resources, drugs, and medical care meant the world became increasingly asymmetric with respect to disease—this mirrors other gaps such as wealth, food security, infant deaths, and life expectancy, all of which have widened.

A trip from the West to sub-Saharan Africa entails a battery of vaccines and an orgy of pill-taking, but for the most part the locals themselves are not protected against many of the diseases, including cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis A.

It stands to reason that the prevalence of these pathogens in African countries is exactly because the diseases are rife, which by definition means that humans have them and die from them.

Medics and medicines are scarce—I was invited for dinner in the malaria-infested Songo area of NW Mozambique, only to find I was sitting at a table in a room which had only window frames, devoid of any mozzie nets. My host explained that the house was rat-infested when he first moved in, which invariably attracted snakes. And no, he didn’t have any antivenom, he relied on the dogs to keep out the snakes. Two dogs barked out in the yard—another had been killed a fortnight ago by a cobra who spat venom with surgical precision into the poor hound’s eyes.

When I flew to Africa, Italy was not on the coronavirus radar—by the time I returned one week later there were almost two thousand confirmed cases. On March 6th, the Italian civil protection agency reported 4636 cases and 197 deaths, which puts the death rate at four percent.

Italian Civil Protection Department coronavirus dashboard. Italy gives the world a lesson in transparency.

‘If you look for it, you will find it,’ doctors tell us, and the Italian health system took it to heart. Other European countries have been far less thorough in their assessment—in general, common sense about the new pathogen has largely been replaced with blind panic, a standard human reaction to epidemics.

Several politicians have been doing the worst thing possible, with the orange man engaging in hunch-medicine—a Trump supporter bizarrely denied the existence of the virus, which has has over three hundred known cases and several deaths in the US.

Pathogen-host relationships are very complex, but in some cases pathogens have a particular temperature preference—this has been analysed for flu (the name originally comes from influenza del freddo, or influence of the cold)—the flu virus can survive a day or more at 43o F, but only one hour at 90o F.

The behavior of the influenza virus may seem peculiar, given its host is warm-blooded, but a paper published by the National Institutes of Health in 2008 provides a clue:

At winter temperatures, the virus’s outer covering, or envelope, hardens to a rubbery gel that could shield the virus as it passes from person to person… At warmer temperatures, however, the protective gel melts to a liquid phase. But this liquid phase apparently isn’t tough enough to protect the virus against the elements, and so the virus loses its ability to spread from person to person

Covid-19 has appeared—and apparently thrived—in a wide range of countries, so it may be less sensitive to temperature than its brethren.

Like Anglia’s King Canute (Knut of Denmark), and the Hangzhou archers who shot arrows at a tidal bore to restrain it, so the orang-u-tan labors under the illusion he can stop the forces of nature.

If things in the US go like everywhere else—and they will—cases will spike over the next weeks, jetting up into the thousands.

Perhaps ordinary folk will finally realize that science cannot be beat by tweet.

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

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