Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Law of Averages

January 20, 2019

I stopped off in London a couple of days ago and felt as if I’d landed on a lost planet. I only muttered the ‘B’ word briefly, but the echoes were clear—people are fed up, confused, and mostly numbed to the political mayhem.

As I traveled east, the picture changed from a Europe troubled by the rise of populism to nations where freedom of expression—and therefore of choice—varies from limited to radically curtailed. As the plane flew over the Mid-East, and then on to Southeast Asia, the dawn brought me a little clarity.

The rise of populism in the EU is inevitable, as it is (and was) in the US and UK. The reason became obvious as I wandered around London and observed ordinary working people—it crystallized when an English lady opened a restroom door for me in an airport lounge two days ago. She was one of two englishwomen who stood in the access corridor providing these services—the lady was charming and worthy of all my respect, and as I exited she once again pulled the door open for me, to my great embarrassment.

In the lounge itself the opulence of the extremely wealthy hid in plain sight, and therein lies the rub. Over the last fifty years, income inequality in the West has mushroomed—and that got me thinking about GDP.

If you want to make absolute comparisons, you use absolutes (duh). China is the most populous nation in the world. France is larger than the Netherlands. Brazil has more head of cattle than Belgium.

But to make relative comparisons, you need to normalize—express your data per unit area, or perhaps as a percentage, or an average—which is exactly what happens with GDP. If you want to rank nations by living standards, per capita GDP is the weapon of choice.

Norway? 71,800 US dollars per annum. Portugal, less than half of that.

That’s all well and good, but are these fair comparisons? The short answer is no. Averages are only appropriate if we’re looking at a bell-shaped curve, but the distribution of income in the West is now much better aligned with what you see in the East, or in South America—fifty years ago, as a rule of thumb income inequality increased as you traveled east and south.

The analysis of income inequality is not new. The work by M.O. Lorenz led to a paper, Methods of measuring the concentration of wealth, published in 1905, and the Lorenz curve is widely used to represent distribution of wealth. The Gini coefficient was published in 1912, and provides a numerical representation of income inequality.

The Gini index on a world map. East and south are still the unfairest places on earth.

Let me pick five numbers out of a hat. The first numbers are similar: one, four, two, three. But the last number is whoppingly different: nine hundred-ninety. By sheer coincidence, these numbers add up to one thousand.

Bell-shaped they most certainly aren’t—four low numbers jumping to a huge one. If we average them, the result is two hundred. Is that a fair representation of 1, 2, 3, 4, 990? Nope. What might be fair is the median, i.e. the middle number: three.

If this were a human population, eighty percent of the people fall into the one to four income bracket, and the remaining twenty percent are of the species Felis crassus—that’s Latin for fat cat.

The Triple Eye Income Inequality Index, as a simple ratio of median/average, for several European countries and the US. Values close to one hundred indicate a well-balanced nation.

My own Triple Eye calculation suggests the developed world falls far short of equality—low values mean that a few wealthy people hold much of the income, which skews the per capita GDP. Values higher than one hundred exist only in Utopia—a nation with a smattering of poverty and an abundance of wealthy folk.

Of course, the Triple Eye in many gated communities, airline lounges, and luxury resorts is at least one hundred—that is, if you exclude the help.

How does all this relate to populism? If a hundred percent of families can vote, and eighty percent of them are poor, it’s only a matter of time before they vote to disenfranchise the twenty percent that tower above them financially.

Which leaves only two paths.

The first is China, whose Triple Eye score is 14.2%, lower than any of the results graphed above. In an unequal system where votes don’t count, there’s little threat to the status quo.

If the China model is not your bag, then there’s only way democracy can beat populism—fair play.

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

Lost Nations

January 12, 2019

At the start of 2019, the world continues to be an absolute disgrace.

The refugee population from the six biggest crisis-countries totals over eighteen million people, more than the entire population of the Netherlands. The nations in question are the usual suspects: Syria, Congo, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia. An order of magnitude separates Syria (6.3 million) from Somalia, which has ‘only’ nine hundred and ninety thousand refugees.

‘Informal’ housing in the Congo, a nation where 4.5 million are internally displaced and seven hundred thousand are refugees in other countries.

Worldwide, UNHCR, the UN High Commission for Refugees, estimates the number to be almost sixty-eight million—the population of the United Kingdom. The worse thing about those refugee numbers is the way they’ve grown in the last ten years. What we are witnessing in 2019 is a doubling of the displaced human population.

If numbers are your thing, that’s an APR of 8.7%, so right now the refugee crisis is growing faster than the Chinese economy.

The Congo is an extraordinary example of the African curse. The country was massacred by King Leopold II’s occupation in the late XIXth century—the Belgians, a most unlikely nation of conquerors, stayed until 1960. Since then, independence has brought nothing but suffering to the folks of this fabulously rich nation, on which the world depends to keep its cellphones running. Oh, and then there’s the diamonds and gold—none of this wealth filters down to the poor souls who live in the Democratic People’s Republic of the Congo.

Right now, the country is in post-electoral trauma, with hotly disputed results. After Mobutu and a couple of Kabilas, elections were finally held—a major stakeholder is the Congolese ‘Église de Christ’, the protestant Church of Christ. If you want to practice your French a little more, or just enjoy the retro animated gifs, praise the lord!

Change in refugees worldwide between 2008 and 2016.

The Congo provinces of North-Kivu and Ituri are Ebola hotspots—a report released one month ago counted five hundred cases, of which 452 were confirmed and 48 probable. 289 of these have died—241 are confirmed Ebola cases.  The health issue made voting in the provinces a challenge, and the election results reflect this omission.

Hemorrhagic fever, or Ebola, in full swing in the Congo. How long will it take to care enough?

But perhaps the most famous crisis you never heard of is Venezuela. I’m kidding, in a terrible sort of way—of course you’ve heard of it, but we don’t hear much. Occasionally there are shots of Nicolas Maduro, a man who cares more for his mustache than for his people, and the odd Trump rant, but that’s it.

Meanwhile, the IMF predicts a ten million percent inflation rate in 2019. When an economy collapses at that scale, we’re into chaos theory. It’s an extraordinary example of non-linearity, showcasing just how quickly a wealthy nation—Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world—descends from riches to rags, plunging a whole generation into despair. It’s an indictment of the command economy, and a dire warning of the consequences of saloon-door politics, where wild swings from left to right only ever benefit the opportunists.

In perspective, Europe, and even the United States, seem only mildly insane.

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

Presidential Alert

October 6, 2018

At exactly seventeen minutes past eleven my cell put out a loud honk. I was in a store and my phone was set to silence, which made the noise even more surprising. All around, a similar braying was heard from customers in various aisles.

The US reaches out to all its citizens. How long will it be before this channel begins its tenure as government spam?

A message popped up to calm the good folks of the homeland—we were not yet at war with the bad hombres du jour. I wasn’t particularly calm about being so trivially easy to locate, but I suppose that growing up in a dictatorship left me with a big brother bias.

The few days I spent in the States left me with the same impression as always—nice people, eager to help. And yet the chasm between haves and have-nots is inescapable. On a broad level, it’s what you see in Asia or in Europe—not to mention Africa—so the US is certainly not exceptional.

But it’s odd to witness such affluence and then repeatedly come across folks who are not only homeless, but clearly mentally ill—a society without a safety net.

“Motherfucker!” the woman screamed at some poor fellow trying to cross the street. She repeatedly hurled abuse at the man until he managed to get over the crosswalk. Then she took her two battered suitcases, walked twenty yards with them, and parked them outside a bank. Still cursing at the top of her voice, living out the film inside her head, she went into a convenience store, stole a cart and made off back down the sidewalk. A prowler drove slowly down the street, the cops hardly glancing at her.

As I walked, more down and outs appeared, each with their particular foible. It was four in the afternoon.

This was LA, and I’m not talking about South Central. The homeless people I saw were either black or Latino, but there are plenty of whites going down that road. When Trump was asked to define ‘white trash’, he allegedly replied:

They’re people just like me, only they’re poor.

And although trash is an unacceptable epithet, the orange tariffs are sure to generate more poverty in the US. The recent taxes applied to aluminum are a case in point. The US imports eighty-five percent of the raw aluminum it uses, preferring to focus on value-added products.

The Trump administration (an oxymoron at best) was at loggerheads about the tariffs, with Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and adviser Peter Navarro defending the tax on raw material, and Cohn and Mnuchin violently opposed—policy disagreements on trade issues eventually led to Cohn’s resignation, as Bob Woodward explains in Fear.

In a meeting in DC in June 2017, key players in the aluminum industry eagerly gathered to listen to the administration’s plans—Trump was about to make good on his promise to hurt China. Their joy was short-lived—instead of focusing on aluminum products, the Trump tariffs were aimed at raw materials.

The main beneficiary was a mid-size company based in Chicago called Century Aluminum, but the emblematic smelter held up to the scrutiny of the Trumpian base is located in Hawesville, Kentucky. Oh, and there’s one other thing—the company is owned by Glencore, a mining giant ‘based‘ in Switzerland.

Half a million tons of aluminum stashed at Braithwaite, SE of New Orleans by Castleton Commodities International LLC—hedge funds jump on the Trump tariff train.

Trump used a little-known law to impose tariffs and avoid congressional approval: the law emphasizes national security. Secretary of defense Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mathis informed Trump that military requirements amounted to only three percent of US production—exactly the kind of statistic Trump was keen to ignore.

As usual, the traders were feathering their own nest. In particular, the London Metal Exchange and Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which warehoused vast quantities of aluminum, sitting on it to push up prices, moved their stash to private stockpiles—when Commerce personnel looked at data from the exchanges, only 120,000 tonnes were in the books, but in reality US reserves were far higher—about two million tonnes.

The players who stashed aluminum in the States have patiently waited it out. As soon as tariffs were imposed, their stocks, already in the US, suddenly jumped in value. Even more juicy, China retaliated to the move by setting tariffs on aluminum scrap. The perverse outcome is that the US began to import or keep more scrap, undercutting domestic raw production.

The winners of this game are hedge funds, together with companies such as Glencore—the losers are always the same—poor people with great expectations.

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

South of the Border

September 30, 2018

At eight in the morning, U.S. eastern time, I handed my passport to the CBP officer. He was a large black man, and he’d been on duty all night. This time, my port of entry into North America wasn’t the United States, but Canada—so I needed to fill in the paperwork.

I expected the border to be a challenge in these Trumpian times, but the only real downer were the pictures of the first family hanging on the wall of the immigration office. My experience with Canadian immigration has always been good, but I can’t say the same for the States—airport queues are endless, and the officials can charitably be described as impolite—I have never been told I was welcome to America.

At Montreal’s Trudeau Airport I was presented with a robot interface which took two minutes to process me, and was then asked a couple of trivial questions by a human before going on my way.

I optimistically booked a seafood restaurant downtown, but by the time I got to the hotel my head was spinning with exhaustion—I’d been awake for the best part of twenty-two hours. The next morning, I took a stroll through beautiful downtown Montreal—a walk through Leonard Cohen land.

Last month, yet another person dear to my heart decided to take his leave—making it a hat-trick within a year—I headed to Our Lady of the Harbour, where there was a candle waiting to be lit. The statue is mentioned in ‘Suzanne’, one of the many songs Cohen wrote about his women—I’ve always thought he displayed exemplary timing by dying the day before Trump was elected.

I approached the church from the Rue du Bonsecours—Montreal is a bit froggy—but the statue is at the back of the church, appropriately facing the St. Lawrence river. The front of the church had the obligatory archway and two red doors.

Only in Montreal would you see a bottle of wine sitting patiently outside a church door on a Sunday morning before mass, waiting for Louis to show up.

The devout filed into the church. The not-so-devout slipped in behind them, made his way into a side pew, put his head in his hands, and thought for a while about the slipstream of life. He was admonished by an usher, but only after he had secured the photograph he wanted.

It was a sunny Sunday morning but my soul was dark. I walked down to the river, where the sun aptly poured down like honey on Our Lady of the Harbour, marveled at the stillness, the lovers walking hand in hand, children screaming and playing, watched by indulgent grandparents.

I looked east to the cantilever bridge and imagined the ships of Wolfe making their way up the river, and the tales of my childhood about the battle against Montcalm (both generals died) and the conquest of the city.

For me, eastern Canada is Fenimore Cooper, and the stories of wars fought by French, English, and Indians. I paid more attention this time to the number of Indian names that exist in Canada—and in the northeast US—it struck me as ironic that the western conquerors decimated the first nations and perversely celebrated by naming towns, rivers, and lakes after the peoples they destroyed.

Downtown Montreal is full of little shops—some are tourist traps, but some are just off the wall, reflecting the eclectic nature of the city itself. I found a couple of things to stuff in my suitcase—in particular, there’s a store near Notre Dame which sells only Christmas goods, and walking through it, I grew wistful thinking of the coming December—one less seat at the table. This is the best Christmas store I’ve ever seen, and I indulged my pain, buying happy trinkets to cheer up the tree.

I didn’t linger in Montreal, but flew east to Nova Scotia. Eastern Canada is just starting to cool down, but the hardcore weather is still perhaps a month away. As I drove south towards Maine the red fall colors slowly vanished from the leaves, the trees a bellwether for latitudinal shifts.

As I write, night has fallen in Western Europe—in a couple of hours I’ll be in LA. In my first day in the United States, I looked for signs of change—the anger and bitterness reflected in the Kavanaugh confirmation, the hate and loathing Trump projects to his base, the tectonic chasm between Democrats and Republicans—I see none of it.

At the Maine border, I joked around with the CBP guy, and it was the first time I was admitted into the US without having to declare that I’m not a member of the communist party (whichever one is at hand), and that I do not intend to perform acts of terrorism. I crossed the border in a hippy van, but no one was in the least interested in inspecting it—if there were dogs, they must have been napping. The whole thing cost me six bucks, and even so the CBP guy was sheepish about charging me.

I landed in Chicago and expected a change of scene—like New York, the windy city has a reputation for abrasive, short-tempered citizens, and airports usually draw the cream of the crop. But no, all I got was polite, open-armed courtesy—if the conflict and hatred lives here, it’s well concealed.

I see the Kavanaugh thing is getting worse, and that Trump was forced into ordering an FBI investigation—having just finished Bob Woodward’s book ‘Fear’, I can imagine how much the boat rocked at the White House.

Maybe LA will reveal itself as a den of fracture, and I will witness Americans hurlin’ abuse at each other—but judging by how calm my flight is, and how congenial the passengers are, striking up conversations at the drop of a baseball cap, I don’t think so.

Instead, the safety check on the plane made me think of the classic SNL sketch roasting Aer Lingus—and, as I head west to the land of silicone valley, I can’t help smiling at the antics of Stormy Daniels, and particularly at a column in this week’s Private Eye magazine.

In it, a troubled Donald Trump is tweeting at 3 am about Hurricane Florence. The orange man labors under the mistaken belief that she is a colleague of Stormy, and reassures his base that he never slept with Hurricane Florence. Two minutes later he admits he did sleep with her, but no money changed hands. Subsequent tweets admit to payment but deny Russian involvement, until the president finally comes clean, if you excuse the pun.

I’m enjoying my first day here—it’s still the America I know, a country with a big heart and a hearty embrace. Trump? This too shall pass.

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

Boiled Chicken

September 15, 2018

In February 2017 the Northern Ireland Executive fell. Since then, the tiny tip of Ireland has been without a government.

Northern Ireland joins several European nations, including Belgium and Spain, in the club of chaos—but where Belgium is plagued by the wars of Charles V and the Dutch protestants, Northern Ireland is plagued, er… by chickens.

The story developed over the last five years or so. It began with an initiative designed to reduce use of fossil fuels in the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was championed by DETI, the Department of Energy, Trade, and Investment.

To add a little spice, the then minister in charge of DETI was one Arlene Foster—she is currently the head of the DUP, or Democratic Unionist Party, which bailed out prime minister Theresa May after her ruinous attempt to consolidate power in the lead-up to Brexit.

The RHI was designed to stimulate small businesses and individual citizens to use renewables—wood shavings, pellets, and other non-fossil fuels would be promoted as heat sources.

The program was well supported in England, with an effective management and verification structure—in Northern Ireland, the management team was a little less effective—human resources to the tune of three.

The subsidy arrangement approved by the government effectively allowed participants to make a twenty percent profit on the scheme—in plain English, for every pound you put in, you made a profit of twenty pence.

Twenty-five million pounds ($33,000,000) were initially allocated—by 2015, only ten million had been spent. Then, that glint in the Irish eye came forth—in the fall of 2015 almost one thousand concerned citizens filed applications—the green fields of Ireland were about to become significantly greener.

There was only one hiccup—because you could make twenty points on your investment, the sale of boilers rocketed, and a good proportion of the beneficiaries began heating empty barns and chicken sheds that had previously never been heated at all.

Stormont

The runaway boiler scheme as viewed by the Belfast Telegraph.

Arlene did such a good job she was promoted to minister of finance. The lack of financial controls meant the scheme ballooned from the original twenty-five million quid to four-hundred and ninety, a cool six hundred and forty million dollars.

Her successor, Jonathan Bell, closed the scheme in early 2016, after her majesty’s treasury had made serious noises about paying the bill. By then, Ms. Foster had become first minister—she was now in charge of the DUP and head of the uneasy arrangement with Sinn Féin responsible for ruling Northern Ireland.

Subsequent theatrics developed—the late Martin McGuinness was deputy first minister under the power sharing agreement. Since Arlene Foster neither resigned nor was ousted from her position, during a period when accusations flew and dirt was enthusiastically dished, the IRA’s former commander resigned. By doing so, he brought down the executive—the nation has been without a government since.

Of course that didn’t stop Arlene entering into another power sharing arrangement, this time with Theresa May—Foster traded ten DUP members of parliament for one billion pounds in cash—that offsets a few chicken boilers. The deal, called a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, values DUP MPs at a hundred grand a crack.

Speaking of which… Ireland, be it north or south, is a treasure trove of craic—over a drink, a local helped me understand the consequences of age. “When you’re young, your dreams are wet and your farts are dry…”

In any other country, these would be sobering thoughts.

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

 

The Train

September 8, 2018

The little boy knew war. It’s not that he was experienced in it, but he’d never known anything else.

It was a mechanical war, a technological war—the first of its kind. The bayonet wars were over,  gone were the ditches, trenches, and sappers—the new tools of war were planes, boats, automobiles—and trains.

There were even rockets that took the parabolic arc of the catapults of Troy to a new, terrible dimension. No more the clash of swords, the galloped charge, and the severed limbs. The new era laid to waste whole buildings, destroyed communities, and, in time, would obliterate an entire city with a nuclear flash.

These things the little boy did not know. But his reality was no less bleak—the pangs of hunger, the cold hand of fear, and the smell of death, as he counted out days in a country led by a madman who started a war he couldn’t win. The proud capital city, once the aspirant to an empire, was now facing destruction, with daily bombings shaking it to the core. A day’s march to the east of its gates, Stalin’s army lay waiting—the Russian bear patiently stalking the black eagle of the Prussians.

The apartment had little food—some black bread, ersatz coffee from acorns, some suspect-looking wurst. Some days, the little boy’s father salvaged a cabbage or two from the allotments off the bombed-out streets, and mother would make watery soup, with just a couple of rounds of sausage.

The little boy kept quiet, mostly living inside his head. In the back room, he dreamed of a different universe, one where peace and order reigned. He carefully placed his model train on the track, and reversed it slowly to hook the tender. Behind the tender, the freight cars stood at ready.

There was something about that train which calmed his soul—maybe it was the way everything coupled together, the rails and junctions on the complex oval track he’d built—or maybe it was the little station, and the houses with the model figures, smiling and waving at the engineer.

For the little boy, the Märklin train set was a life in itself. Even when the aroma of the sausage and cabbage soup wafted in, and his stomach clenched with hunger, he turned the transformer to speed his engine a little more. Tonight, the route was via the eastern junction—there were goods to be delivered at the shipyard.

A host of bits and bobs were arranged on the flatbed cars. Although to you they might look like a lady’s thimble and cotton bobbins, or a few bolts and nails taken from father’s toolbox, they were nothing of the sort—the signal changed, and the black steam engine hauled the train into the yard, slowing as it approached the platform, until all the cars were perfectly lined up.

All around, men scurried to unload the goods: coils of steel cable, sheet metal to be used for the battleship, and yes, an entire diesel powerplant for a tugboat recently commissioned by the harbor.

“Max, zum Tisch!” his mother called again.

The little boy’s stomach cramped some more, as his synapses fired messages where the delicious scent of the Kohlwurst soup mingled with… could it be? YES, dumplings!

He felt his mouth watering, took one last look at his beloved railway and sprinted down the corridor. Max’s father was already at his seat in the kitchen, and as the little boy pulled back his chair, Father coughed  pointedly.

“Sorry!” the boy said. He perched up to the sink and washed his hands.

“Good.” The father smiled. The family held hands around the kitchen table for a moment, and then Max’s mother served the soup; a slice of Schwarzbrot lay beside each plate.

His father raised a glass of water for a toast. “Zum Wohl!”

The family had barely tasted the first spoonful when the air raid sirens started.

At first they shrugged it off. There had been hundreds of air raids over the past years, and well over a million people had been evacuated. There were huge shelters at the Zoo, Kleitspark, Anhalt, and other locations, enough to protect sixty-five thousand Berliners.

In the first years of the war, the Allies struck the U-boat ports, and the industrial valley of the Ruhr—but as Germany itself came under threat, the heavy Lancaster bombers increasingly hit Berlin.

The little boy’s family ignored the sirens for a minute or so, gulping the soup down hungrily. Just then, a massive explosion shook the building.

“Go! Go down NOW! That was way too close.” Father jumped up and ran to the window. “The enemy is right above us.”

Max was petrified. For a moment, he didn’t know which way to turn, then he made up his mind. He scooped up the bread, dashed to his little room, and grabbed the black locomotive.

As he clutched his mother’s hand tight, the bombers’ roar to the east as they banked for yet another pass, he watched women and children hurrying down into the basement. Most of the little girls clutched a favorite doll, and the boys, too, had a keepsake or a toy to keep them company.

“It’s the guidance system plant, that’s what they’re after,” said his father, as he pushed his way forward and through the shelter door. Max watched as his dad waved goodbye. The boy made his way down the cellar steps—this was a local shelter, organized by the building’s residents.

The cellar was dank and dark, lit only with paraffin lamps. All around him, kids sat in silence as the ground above shook. Some mothers said a silent prayer for their husbands, left at the mercy of the ordnance raining from the skies.

Time ticked by as the earth shook with each new pounding—Max stole into his pocket and extracted his last bite of bread. From the Tiergarten Flakturm, the Bund Deutscher Mädel girls aimed the 128 mm guns at the sky—there was no one else left to defend the city.

An eerie quiet took hold of the basement after the Lancasters had spewed their venom into the street above. The basement door was made of heavy steel, and the concrete walls held firm.  The bombers had returned home. “They’re gone,” one woman said. She cursed the invaders, turned the lock, and pushed the door.

Nothing.

“Maybe it’s locked,” someone else offered. Various ladies juggled with the key. They locked and unlocked the door, turned the handle, pushed and shoved. The door remained as still as a sarcophagus.

Children looked at each other in fright. One little girl hugged her dolly tight and began to cry. Soon, more kids were in tears. They might spend hours trapped in this dark hole.

One of the paraffin lamps flickered once, then twice, then abruptly died.

Hours? Perhaps days. Hardly any water. Or food. The women in the shelter had all realized their predicament. A slow death from hunger and thirst, the air gradually getting heavier as the oxygen was replaced by carbon dioxide. They were isolated, completely alone. The infants were crying in earnest. The older kids looked pale and haunted, as fear clutched their hearts, numbed their brains and made it impossible to think.

But not Max. His heart felt steady. He wasn’t a large child, but there was something special about him—a self-reliance that helped him to solve challenges—the first step was analytical, decomposing a problem into its component parts. He knew very well the door was not locked. He held his metal locomotive in his small hands and thought. Around him, panic was setting in.

“We’ll shout,” an older lady said. “We’ll organize a chorus, someone will hear us from above.”

“What about the air?”

“We have to take the risk. Shout, wait. Shout, wait.”

Max’s father paced around the mountain of rubble that was once his home. The apartment block had collapsed, completely smothering the cellar entrance, the ground piled high with concrete blocks, the armature sculpted into bizarre shapes; girders were strewn across the terrain, as if tossed from a playful giant’s hand.  Around him, a couple of dozen other men stood. They were covered in dust and they all looked dazed. The Lancasters had made multiple passes, dropping their bombs along the flight axis to the factory, and then extending beyond it.

The British raid was a resounding success—the industrial plant was razed to the ground. And as usual, there was collateral damage—most of the housing for half a mile either side of the factory had been hit, a good part of it leveled as the planes dropped their incendiary one-thousand pounders along the target line.

The men staring at the rubble shared one common thought—my family is gone. For hours they labored, moving rocks and steel. It was slow work, without machines. Men used pickaxes and crowbars, wheelbarrows and their bare hands, trying desperately to defeat time. Somewhere below the huge piles of debris were sixty women and children, their own flesh and blood.

Had the building collapsed entirely, destroying the basement? Were their loved ones interred under piles of rock? As the time passed, their efforts became increasingly frantic. Every so often the whole group would stop and listen, hoping for one single solitary sound.

Nothing. More digging. Nothing. Fatigue set in, then despair.

A grey dawn was already breaking when the little boy’s father heard a faint metallic sound from below.

Inside the basement, where most everyone had already resigned to their fate, the little boy stood stubbornly at the steel door. In his hand he clutched his black Märklin locomotive. Holding it by the wheels, he struck the door. The metal clanged once more. Although he alternated between left and right, his arms grew very tired, but he never gave up. The strike of the two objects made a metallic sound which conducted right through the door. He bashed the door with fury, crying as his beloved engine slowly came apart.

If I hit hard enough, and often, my father will hear my cry.

He was still striking the steel door when it finally swung open.

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

 

Twice

August 18, 2018

A year ago I wrote in these pages about a little-known place in the southwest coast of Spain—it’s still a well-kept secret, relaxed and foreigner-free—go there, my friends, but never ever trip-advise it!

Doing things twice is important—whether it’s the second time you make love to someone, or re-reading a book. In fact, when it comes to books, how many you read twice may be more important than the overall count.

Travel is similar for me—if I love a spot, I’ll go there twice, three times, and then it’s time for a change—I could never have a holiday home.

It’s been an odd summer in Europe, and just as strange in places like Japan. California, and its progenitor, Iberia, have been torched while the Trump administration relaxes car pollution rules.

This past week, Andalucia was cool—I was going to write ‘surprisingly’, but it’s time to hold off adverbs when describing the weather—nothing about the climate is surprising, except the fact that people aren’t worried enough to say “We have to do something about this weather,” just as they might address a persistent cough or an engine malfunction.

Climate change is going to cost a fortune, but just about everyone thinks the bill will be laid at someone else’s door, so an average gas guzzle of twenty-five miles to the gallon is currently the gold standard for the US.

The coastal strip of Andalucia is a land of fish and fishermen. I was in restaurants where a two-page menu contained no more than ten meat dishes, of which most were tapas. One snack-bar promised albondigas como pelotas de tenis—meatballs the size of tennis balls, but fish is the real deal.

And the Spanish will pay for their fish, make no mistake. Small boiled shrimp, the famous gamba blanca, are for sale in the market at around five bucks a pound—the mark-up in restaurants is one thousand percent.

It’s been a good week—baby shrimp tortillitas washed down with Manzanilla, a most special sherry that comes exclusively from Sanlúcar, anchovies in vinegar, and mantis shrimp, a rare treat.

The mantis shrimp is an amazing animal—it belongs to an ancient order of crustaceans called Stomatopoda, so called because they have gills on their feet. The fossil record of the mantis goes back four hundred million years—the species I saw (and ate) has a fake pair of eyes on its telson (tail) which will fool predators into biting the wrong bit.

The eyes themselves are also astounding. As are other physiological traits.

In April 1998, an aggressive creature named Tyson smashed through the quarter-inch-thick glass wall of his cell. He was soon subdued by nervous attendants and moved to a more secure facility in Great Yarmouth. Unlike his heavyweight namesake, Tyson was only four inches long. But scientists have recently found that Tyson, like all his kin, can throw one of the fastest and most powerful punches in nature. He is a mantis shrimp.

Mantis shrimps are aggressive relatives of crabs and lobsters and prey upon other animals by crippling them with devastating jabs. Their secret weapons are a pair of hinged arms folded away under their head, which they can unfurl at incredible speeds.

The ‘spearer’ species have arms ending in a fiendish barbed spike that they use to impale soft-bodied prey like fish. But the larger ‘smasher’ species have arms ending in heavy clubs, and use them to deliver blows with the same force as a rifle bullet.

The cool weather made it possible to drink red wine—in southern Spain they like to serve it chilled, which is tantamount to lèse-majesté. I firmly sent back the ice buckets—the perfect way to assassinate a tempranillo—the tinto fino enjoyed by the wily priest of The India Road.

And what better food to see off a good bottle of Pesquera than ventresca, thinly sliced tuna belly, grilled medium-rare?

The tuna was aleta amarilla, or yellowfin—I was hoping for bluefin, and had planned a trip east of Cadiz to a town called Conil. The offshore area is home to the most ancient tuna traps in the world, the almadrabas, which date back to the times of the Iberian caliphate, and before that, to the Phoenicians.

The traps are laid to capture tuna migrating from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to spawn—in Spain, the fishery is between April and June. The water turns red with blood as the tuna are brought in—if you’re faint-hearted, do skip the next movie.

The clip above shows the modern-day capture of tuna in Barbate, a town near Conil. A few centuries ago the fishery was so profitable that the Duke of Medina-Sidonia claimed the profits for himself after the conquest of Tarifa from the Moors. Tuna were and are still fished all over the Mediterranean—they even have a country named after them: it’s called Tunisia.

Since we’re doing movie-time, I felt it was essential to share the clip below with you—it was filmed in the early nineteen-sixties in the Algarve, southern Portugal. From the barefoot fishermen to the old women crocheting, it’s more than a fishing documentary—it’s a way of life.

The independence wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Portuguese Guinea had just erupted, young men were being conscripted to fight overseas, and Salazar’s dictatorship was in full swing.

I scuppered my trip east—I was targeting a tuna restaurant, but when I called them up, I found it was booked for weeks.

Of course you cannot go to a place like Sanlúcar without ending up in the fish market—so I did. It’s an unusual place, a medley of vegetable stalls, butchers, shops selling the local embutidos, and fishmongers.

The tuna stalls were opposite each other—one was empty, the other was mobbed. I waited patiently in line behind some restaurant buyers, and watched tuna, swordfish, and hake vanish rapidly.

Finally, it was my turn to get at the precious loot. Further on, I hit the gamba blanca stall, and stocked up on mantis along the way.

I kept meeting the same Andalucian woman at various stalls, sometimes behind me in the queue, others in front—inevitably, great mirth ensued, and she bombarded me with a barrage of Gaditano aspirated vowels.

In one stall, baby sole were for sale. Many years ago I saw the same thing in markets near Lisbon, described as ‘folhas de oliveira’, or olive leaves.

Lisbon and Sanlúcar have one thing in common—they sit next to the two greatest estuaries in Iberia, the Tagus and the Guadalquivir. And whenever you fish an estuary, there will be little fish for sale; estuaries are the most wonderful waterways in the world—a mix of salt and fresh waters, a place where mud meets sand, and a haven of shallow, murky water where baby fish come to grow.

Baby sole for sale at the fish market in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. If you look carefully, you’ll spot the mantis shrimp in the background.

But the most wonderful thing about these baby soles is their name—which of course I discussed with my new Andalucian friend, a mutual glint in our eyes, while the stallholder enviously looked on.

For these babies have a name which echoes all that we loathe about the politics and politicians that surround us. They’re called tapa culos—ass covers.

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

 

 

The English Patient

July 21, 2018

Western Europe has settled into holiday mode. The weather decided to do a flip, bringing stunning sunshine to Ireland, the UK, and various other countries in Northern Europe—there are wildfires in Sweden and in the British northeast.

England’s green and pleasant land was certainly not on offer as my plane made the final approach into Luton last week—more like ochre, the kind of landscape I’m used to seeing when landing in Rome or Barcelona.

Predictably, the consequence of this good weather to the north has been a wintry summer in Southwest Europe. Lisbon has hit unheard-of heights in popularity—currently the joke is that Portugal has become so popular that the winter decided to go there for its summer vacation.

The reasons for these inverted weather patterns are not clear, but it’s logical that you can’t have bad weather or good weather in all of Western Europe—it’s the hydrological cycle, you can’t print rain.

So London is hotter than Los Angeles, and barbecue sales are booming in Belgravia. Across the road in Westminster, things are also hotting up, although on the street you don’t hear much talk about brexit—Brits are in ‘keep calm and light the barbecue’ mode, and brexit has become a battleground for newspapers and politicians.

The European Union as a whole never dwelt much on the topic after the initial surprise. It’s more like schadenfreude now, as the French and Germans watch internecine strife in both the major UK political parties.

May, who must surely be the most teetering prime minister in recent British history, has finally become rid of her nemesis, Boris Johnson, but she has too many powerful enemies to stand on her own two feet.

Her conscience goes where the wind blows, and the only reason she hasn’t fallen yet is because no one wants her job. This is a woman who voted to remain in Europe—Brits call them remainers, and brexit Brits call them remoaners—and after Cameron disgracefully resigned, having previously declared publicly he would accept the responsibility of leading a post-referendum Britain, May took on a job opposite to her views.

It’s common sense that after the referendum debacle, the winners should have been left to pick up the pieces—would Mr. Johnson please stand up. Instead, the former mayor of London, along with Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and a coterie of others have engaged in antics worthy of the Eton quad, snipping and sniping at government policy, and undermining and undercutting their PM from both within and without.

Private Eye’s ironic take on the UK hostage held in Iran, featuring the usual suspects.

Of course Johnson refused to step up after the referendum, and he shows no signs of stepping up now. It’s just so much easier to throw muck from the sidelines than to solve problems.

Problem-solving requires three things.

First, an understanding of the problem. If this sounds banal, it isn’t, because every complex issue has ramifications, and all potential solutions have consequences that extend in space and time. Failure to realize this leads to the chaos exemplified by Tinybrain Trump’s ‘easy to win’ trade war—and the powder hasn’t even been packed into the muskets yet.

Second, a capacity to compromise. Solving complex multilateral issues is the art of the possible—consensus rather than unanimity, compromise rather than confrontation. The trade war and immigration (lock up the kids) war (note how they’re always ‘wars’) examples are illustrative.

Finally, recognition of discord. The very same ‘base’ that will support you as you vociferously criticize—and the more vociferous you are the happier they’ll be—will hang you out to dry if they find that your ‘simple’ solution is actually a hoax. By that I don’t mean it won’t work at all—just that like any solution, it will make some people less happy than others.

This third consequence is inevitable, which is why truly populist candidates won’t solve problems—instead they prefer to ascribe blame.

The guys who shout from the pedestal don’t whole the key to our future, in fact they can hardly find the lock—these men aren’t demi-gods, they’re demagogues.

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

American Tune

July 18, 2018

London had an American week. The blimp came and went, as did Trump’s crass comments to The Sun—the man’s a fart—he smells bad but fades quickly.

I entertained the notion that the British PM might simply cancel her meeting with him—it took a steely lady in her late eighties to set me straight. “Of course May should see Trump, because he’s the president of the United States. We Brits don’t have to like him, but we must be polite. Trump,” she said firmly, “is not our problem. He’s the American people’s problem—they voted him in, they’re the ones who have to get him out.”

The guilt of that election is pervasive in practically every American I meet. Unlike most guys, I didn’t spend this Sunday watching sports—I was pretty sure the afternoon would go to the boys in Belgrade, and so it did—Djokovic cleaned up in Wimbeldon, and the Serbs will have been delighted to watch the Croats go home in second place.

Somewhere around that time, sixty-eight year old Bonnie Raitt was certainly not acting her age on the Great Oak stage in Hyde Park—the world is far more accommodating to sinners than saints—I haven’t found a Jekyll Park yet.

Raitt was stomping the stage with her trademark red hair, white patch on top, slide guitar wailing the blues—it was mid-afternoon, and the sun was beating down on the tens of thousands gathered for the feast—and what a feast it turned out to be.

An hour after she was done, the next act came on. It certainly wasn’t a case of age before beauty as seventy-year-old James Taylor appeared, armed with a sky-blue Telecaster. Steamroller was blasting as I did the obligatory rock concert thing and began pushing my way forward—it was going to be a long evening.

Toward the end of the set, Sweet Baby James and Fire and Rain safely under his belt, Taylor took a deep breath and said, “There is a different America than the one represented by that guy.” The crowd roared, it’s anger directed at the baby with the blimp, as the a capella strains of Shed a Little Light mesmerized the audience. As Taylor sang ‘Let us turn our thoughts tonight to Martin Luther King’, the American woman next to me cried freely.

Then came the long wait as I pushed forward once more for the last act, until I was just two rows from the front. By then tempers were fraught—I guess the Brits aren’t used to the sun. I remained relatively unscathed, but around me people were exchanging threats and insults—one woman was about to fall on a girl who sat defiantly cross-legged in front of her. “I’m being pushed from behind, I’m going to fall on you.” The girl shrugged. “If you fall, you fall. They’ll get you a stretcher.”

As it happened, much later on in the show, the poor woman felt unwell, and was carried off by the ambulance people—I hope the unspeakably rude girl who made the remark feels now like the shit she is—you can’t polish a turd.

At times, the people around me seemed more like a Trump rally crowd than a celebration of song—I couldn’t help thinking of a recent comment from a friend. “Not sure if this is a cause or effect of Brexit.”

The reason I flew into town made his way onto the stage at eight o’clock in the evening. The crowd erupted as a small man with black chinos and a red t-shirt walked on from the north side of the stage. He was wearing sunglasses, fighting off the sun setting to the west.

Paul Simon was born in nineteen forty-one, and at the ripe age of seventy-six was the last of the baby boomers to pick up his axe last Sunday. Not only that, but the man who gave us Homeward Bound is retiring—it’s his last tour, and I guess his very last night playing London was an emotional time—Simon lived there during a seminal period of his career. ‘Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast’ as another of my favorite singers wrote, and it’s almost impossible to believe that Simon and Garfunkel began in 1956.

An ordinary player in the key of C, and sixty-thousand (maybe more) in the naked light.

Around me, the aggression settled down. The sun set over the trees, and Paul Simon finally took off his shades and hooked them on the red t-shirt. When Bridge Over Troubled Water began, the old guy next to me, who looked as if his face was carved from wood, suddenly began crying. Perhaps some long-forgotten memory started it, maybe a final farewell. I never liked the song much, and Paul Simon’s rambling intro to it suggests he’s pretty ambivalent also.

When the final chord struck and the guy finally stopped crying, I turned to him. “That’s what good rock n’roll does to you—it makes you laugh and it makes you cry.”

On Sunday night, the set didn’t last ninety minutes—by the time all was said and done, it was truly late in the evening, past eleven o’clock. Mostly Paul played Martin guitars, often his trademark black dreadnought.

It was with that guitar, and no one else from the fifteen-piece band on stage, that he finished the evening—I think it must have been extraordinarily difficult for him to stop playing—he must have kept thinking this is it, this is my last time.

He too, had a strong message for his audiences. Before one song, he spoke briefly about E.O. Wilson, a Harvard entomologist that few in his audience will have heard of, and recommended a recent book by the great man called Half-Earth.

Simon told us that the book provides a recipe for a wonderful planet in the twenty-second century—he fluffed his lines to start with, and called it the twenty-first. Perhaps like me, a little voice was telling him that most of us in that park would be organic material by 2100, making those London parks just a little greener.

But the political message came as he idly picked a chord at capo three—this is a man who was described himself ‘as an ordinary singer in the key of C.’ Paul Simon looked out into the night—all he could see by then was an ocean of phones fading into the black horizon.

He simply said, “These times won’t last forever, you know.” The audience exploded in applause—an applause fired by the rage of seeing a pathological liar, a man who sees Western Europe as a foe, comparable in evil to Russia and China, at the helm of the greatest country on earth.

The guitar licks restarted, teasing, probing, like a wanton lover. I already knew what the song was—I’ve played them all for decades.

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused

It’s a song of sadness that turns into hope, as Simon writes of what truly makes America great. It speaks of resistance in adversity, and of the inner strength possessed by the good people of America. That’s why it’s called American Tune.

This is the song that makes me cry—both when Paul Simon starts singing, and as I finish writing.

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

Pot Luck

June 16, 2018

The plane’s tires squealed onto the runway at London’s Heathrow airport, leaving a trail of vaporized rubber, and I made a dash for the rental desk.

On paper, I only had a two hour drive ahead, but traffic on the M25 can easily double that—in the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, ‘in theory, theory is like practice, in practice, it isn’t.’ Or perhaps another Berra quote would be more appropriate: ‘When you get to a fork in the road, take it!’

After getting the hang of the brand-new BMW, I switched the radio onto LBC. I used to think the ‘L’ stood for London, and I speculated about the B & C, but the station self-promotes as ‘Leading Britain’s Conversation’—talk radio at a suitably silly level, with guest hosts like Salmond and Farage stirring the random bigotry of callers—just the sort of thing to while away a traditional Monday afternoon Brit traffic jam.

On my walk through the concourse I picked up the obligatory copy of Private Eye and lingered long enough to see that all the tabloid newspapers sported an identical cover, exhorting British members of parliament to be true to the people—a key brexit vote was underway.

LBC was split between the parliamentary story and a human interest piece on cannabis oil—the mother of an epileptic child was bringing back medical marijuana from Canada in the form of THC oil. The move was designed as a publicity stunt to promote the legal use of medical cannabis in the UK.

Her twelve-year-old was caught up in the middle of this, which seems a little unfair—epileptic fits are bad enough without extra publicity and invasion of privacy.

But the UK attitude to drugs has historically been extremely negative, even though drug use is widespread, so her majesty’s customs officers dutifully apprehended the hash oil, and a press conference followed, in which the mother dutifully explained she would simply return to Canada to buy more.

The British Home Office, in an effort to reduce the noise, dutifully released the offending dope to the offended parental later that day—by which time the traffic was flowing along quite nicely up the M40. By surrendering the oil, the story shifted to a non-story, and devolved to a background hum on legalization—political savvy, by contrast to the mayhem in the House of Commons.

It seems pretty clear that cannabis oil has medical benefits for some central nervous system disorders, of which epilepsy is the foremost candidate. In the UK, weed is a class B drug, which means a potential five-year imprisonment period and an unlimited fine—and as in every other country where such draconian measures exist, the punishment is in no way a deterrent.

Gone to pot? Trends in cannabis consumption in the UK.

The decreasing trend in dope-smoking appeared to halt in 2010, when the labour government bumped weed back into class B, i.e. making possession a crime punishable with imprisonment. The then-home secretary ignored the advice of her own senior scientific adviser, a professor with the delightful name of David Nutt.

The politician in question later resigned when it emerged she had filed an expense claim to pay for her husband’s adult films, and subsequently lost her parliamentary seat.

Medical marijuana is all the rage, partly because the word medical is increasingly optional, as various US states finally make it legal to smoke dope. The debate around oils, which are really just a chemical technique to concentrate the active substance, revolves around THC.

The alternative is CBD, the molecular sister of THC that doesn’t get you high. Cannabidiol, or CBD oil, is legal in many countries, and you can buy it online from UK suppliers—of course, in the Netherlands, you can also easily buy the THC variety.

Although the UK makes it very difficult for medicines containing THC oil to be sold, it is the largest producer and exporter of hash oil in the world. One of the LBC callers phoned in with this fun fact, and was quickly checked correct.

Various callers were quick to point out the irony and fumed at the double standard. I was a little perplexed, since Britain manufactures and exports all kinds of weapons, from armed personnel carriers to surface-to-air missiles—including the Bond-like Thunderbird—but you can’t buy them in Boots.

For many countries, it’s a case of ‘do as I say and not as I do’, a landmark parental strategy. But GW Pharmaceuticals produces ninety-five tonnes of ‘legal cannabis’ per year, according to the Daily Telegraph, almost half of the world supply. The word ‘legal’ just confuses things—GW, which lists on the NASDAQ as GWPH, markets Sativex, which contains THC, is prohibitively expensive, and not recognized by the UK National Health Service as cost-effective. In the Telegraph article, the aptly named Steve Rolles calls the paradox ‘profoundly unethical’—he’s right, but the double standard runs very deep, through weapons, alcohol, child labor, and other examples—and is by no means a British exclusive.

While the hash oil debate fizzled out, the Westminster vote also became a storm in a teacup. Theresa May survived yet another mutiny, and by the next afternoon, on my drive south, the nation’s preoccupation was all about exam stress—mothers complained bitterly that their kids were traumatized by the severity of Britain’s high school exams.

UK exams were always tough, but back in the day, a couple of medicinal tokes certainly eased the head—no exam question ever seemed threatening after being read out by Mr. C.

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

 


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