Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Wonderful World

June 20, 2020

If you look for Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World—an absolutely wonderful song—you’ll find a whole page of Louis Armstrong’s homonymous tune, so you need to dig a little deeper.

Cooke goes through a series of school subjects and topics—I’ve always found the lyrics poignant and amusing, and when I play it I change the line ‘don’t know what a slide rule is for’ to ‘don’t know what a spreadsheet is for’, to reflect modern scholastic ignorance.

Toward the end, the young Sam Cooke informs us that he ‘don’t know much about the Middle Ages’, which is fair enough—no one does.

The Middle Ages are widely seen as a period of historical darkness, sitting somewhere between the end of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance, and no one is quite sure of the start and end dates.

We’re talking about a period that spans a thousand years—no mean feat. Between the Vth and XVth centuries, Europe lived through systematic violence and abuse—France came up with the three estates—clergy, nobles, and commoners—and that convenient concept (if you weren’t a peasant) was widely adopted.

The first two estates, clerics and nobility, were largely exempt from taxes—these were borne by the peasants—a movie that could never end well, as Marie Antoinette found out.

My first book was about the Age of Discovery, associated to the renaissance, and my account of the marvels of Portuguese naval exploration was followed by a book on the travails of Columbus, a man who is overrated in his achievements but not in the consequences of his discoveries—for centuries, the English, French, and Spanish preferred to fight their battles in the Americas and left Asia and Africa to the Portuguese, and to a lesser extent to the Dutch.

Now, I’m sinking back into the dark ages, the Hundred Years War, and the great lords of France—violent and intractable men who thought it shameful to die in your bed, and that adultery was the only true form of romantic love.

The nobility and its troubadours coined the term ‘courtly love’, and in De Amore (About Love) the XIIth century courtier Andreas Capellanus (the surname means chaplain!) wrote that ‘marriage is no real excuse for not loving’—part of this concept stems from the fact that nobles entered into arranged marriages to consolidate property, wealth, and power—love didn’t come into it.

My mentor is Barbara W. Tuchman, a lady who, like me, took up history and made it fun, and was criticized by professional historians who resented the inroads of an amateur and the easy and humorous style of her prose.

Tuchman died in 1989, on the cusp of digital discovery, and I am sure if she were still writing today she could report on amazing things—I could never have been a writer without the internet: it’s given me facts, made me friends, and opened doors.

In the medieval period, education was predicated on seven ‘liberal arts’, and I quote:

Grammar, the foundation of science; logic, which differentiates the truth from the false; rhetoric, the source of law; arithmetic, because ‘without numbers there is nothing’; geometry, the science of measurement; astronomy, the most noble of the sciences because it is connected with divinity and theology; and lastly music.

I find the choice as bizarre as the definitions—certainly science depends as much on mathematics as on the study of natural phenomena such as the flow of a river.

The question “How much water comes out of the Mississippi River?” has a standard answer: “As much as goes in.”

This may seem glib, but a complete answer requires an understanding of precipitation and evaporation, drainage basins and gravity flow, and percolation through the soil. After those topics are mastered, in other words with a working knowledge of geography, geology, and meteorology, a reasonable approximation can be produced without ever actually measuring the flow of the Mississippi.

The relationship between astronomy and religion is typical of the misconceptions of the era—God above was taken literally, and astronomers formulated deeply flawed models where the sun went round the earth and the atmosphere was a pathway to a set of seven heavens.

Medicine was not classed as a liberal art (duh) but considered analogous to music because its purpose was to promote the ‘harmony of the human body.’

History was straightforward and finite—the world began with Adam and Eve and would end with the second coming, which would be followed by judgement day. Perhaps that’s the genesis of the T-Shirt slogan ‘Look Busy, Jesus Is Coming’.

In the United States, creationists live by these rules, despite clear evidence to the contrary—they deny natural selection, and speculate on the end of the world based on opinions uncontaminated by facts.

Tuchman’s interpretation is that in a world of finite history leading to an examination on judgement day, there was no requirement for humans to improve themselves morally or socially in this world—that would come in the next. This is nicely captured in the song ‘The Weight’, where the narrator and Luke sit waiting for the judgement day.


My interest in the Medieval Period, which in many ways is paroxysmally boring, came from the present pandemic—I’ve avoided mentioning it so far, but it seems obvious that more’s-a-comin’—and in particular my interest in the Black Death.

It’s impossible to analyze the Middle Ages in Europe without considering the plague. The disease was first observed in October 1947, when a Genoese merchant ship full of dead and dying men anchored at Messina, Sicily. The ship had come from Caffa in Crimea, a trading post owned by Genoa—the town is now called Feodosia, after the old Greek name Theodosia—it was once part of the Greek empire.

Caffa was one of the world’s most important slave markets, and the bubonic plague arrived from the east, brought by the Mongolian Golden Horde.

Just as with COVID-19, the pestilence spread with great speed—slower due to the lack of globalization, faster due to the lack of hygiene and hospitals.

The Welsh talked about the ‘shilling under the armpit’, a reference to the egg-sized buboes (thus bubonic), or swellings, that appeared in the groin or armpit.

The buboes oozed blood and pus, and the skin quickly developed black splotches due to internal bleeding. The black blood that appeared in the lungs, sputum, urine, feces, and buboes gave the disease its name.

Europe lived in perplexity about many phenomena that are well understood today—which makes it all the more remarkable that cretins like the orange man and his tropical cousin refuse to act on that understanding.

To the medieval populace of Europe, the plague was the end of the world.

It was inevitable, in the religious fervor of the age, that the Jews would get blamed. As a consequence, well before the time of the Spanish Inquisition, widespread pogroms ensued.

Jews carried the plague from Toledo in little packets or a ‘narrow stitched leather bag’. These messengers brought with them rabbinical instructions for poisoning wells and springs. Many Jews were burned alive.

The word that best describes the Middle Ages in cruelty. Ignorance comes a close second.

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


May 31, 2020

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

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

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

Robert Burns, November 1785

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

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

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

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

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

2020 is about to reboot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spurious correlation

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

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

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

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

And now it truly is broken.

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

The Four Horsemen

May 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The virus.

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

Stormy Monday

May 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.


March 1, 2020

“I’ve had malaria nineteen times,” the man said. “The problem with the pills is that the test comes up negative even when you have the bug.”

All around me were the people of the lake, lifers who’ll never leave Africa. Mostly whites, with a smattering of blacks and Indians, who the locals disparagingly call monhés. The language of choice was English, but with the broad vowels of Zimbabwe.

The rough-hewn terrace of the lodge overlooked the huge lake, one thousand square miles that dam the mighty Zambezi, about three hours northwest of the city of Tete.

My last trip to Mozambique was five years before I wrote The India Road, but I never made it up north. Domestic arrivals (is there any other kind) at Tete airport herald the week to come—the road rapidly degenerates after you negotiate the toll queue at the Zambezi bridge —pickups and trucks belch smoke over small boys who run shoeless between the lanes, straining to sell bags of peanuts.

Moz used to be the last row on the UN world poverty list and it’s still down in the catacombs of deprivation—180 out of 189. Two decades ago, the Russians and their satellites were in-country—now they’ve been replaced by the Chinese. The two blocks share a mission—the systematic rape of the country’s natural resources, to the usual benefit of the very few, while the population languishes in desperation.

In Tete arrivals, the light blue T-Shirts of Vale S.A. engineers heading for the coal mines, tiny Brazilian flag sown on the sleeve, and the billboards advertising mining and drilling services tell me what makes the economy tick.

North of the bridge, the road loses its verges, pulverized by the steady stream of double tractor-trailers hauling coal to the coast—from the port of Beira direct to the Middle Kingdom to fuel the imports of the West.

Toyota rules the roads, as in much of Africa, and the giant trucks push you off the road as they barrel south. My pickup drives through squalid villages made of circular mud huts with a conical thatched roof—I had some illusions that the human scenery would be different, that maybe small children wouldn’t look so desperate, but I soon got the picture—Africa doesn’t change.

The road to Songo shows the heart of Africa: women fetching water, tiny children, little hope.

I stayed at a lodge right on Cahora Bassa, a hotel built on one big idea—fishing. The reservoir has twenty-two species of fish, but only three are on the radar—the predatory tigre, a prized sports-fishing trophy, the tiny kapenta, a sardine-like plankton feeder, and the ubiquitous pende—a mixed bag of tilapia, both the local species and the invasive one from the Nile.

A tiger fishing competition takes place over the weekend, and teams have come in from Zim, from Malawi, and as far afield as Zambia. They fish in groups of four, and many have towed speedboats over picadas—the local name for dirt tracks—for miles in order to win the grand prize.

I’m curious about the trophy—what would tempt a man to drive a couple of days through the bush to win the competition?

“The first prize is a car compressor,” says the lodge owner. “One for each member of the team,” he adds with pride. The fishermen gradually fill up the lodge, occupying the small huts—the same formula, round structures with a thatched roof, one double bed and a single for the kids, and a bathroom with a shower, a sink, and toilet. The shower has perennially cold water, but when the outside temperature tops one hundred and five, who needs hot? The huts stink of DEET—no malaria, but the potent chemical will do a number on you in time. Digital is inexistent—no wifi, no cell signal. As soon as I landed in Maputo, digital roaming vanished and I was forced to buy a Moz SIM card, but out here I might as well beat a drum—TIA.

The fishermen don’t give a shit—they crowd the terrace, trading tall tales, chain smoking, and knocking back 2M. The other beer is called Txilar, a local spelling of ‘to chill’, but these guys are roots. They talk about Kariba, on the Zim-Zambia border, where the grand trophy is a pick-up truck, and other lakes to the north where they’ve fished—Malawi, Tanganyika, Victoria…

As night falls, and near the equator it falls like a sledgehammer, the kapenta boats come out. The two-stroke engines pound my eardrums—by law, there’s a five-hundred-meter buffer to shore, but no one gives a shit. The fishery is dwindling, prey to the tragedy of the commons. Back in the mid-nineties, a boat hauled more than three hundred crates a night—at thirty keys a crate, that’s around a metric ton of fish.

These days, maybe five boats can catch that tonnage—after salting, the fish is trucked to the DRC via Zim and Zambia. The industrial fleet lives at odds with the locals—the destitute folk from the villages that surround the lake also fish, but they do it in dugouts. And they do it with mosquito nets. Through aid agencies, the government distributes impregnated mosquito netting to the population to improve public health. The locals sell the nets to the fishermen, who use them to catch anything that swims—TIA.

The illegal fishermen net the coastal areas, net the mouths of the rivers, net everything they can. They catch kapenta, tilapia, anything goes—any size, any time, any place. Oh yes, there are regulations, I’m told, mesh sizes, licenses…

Lake Cahora Bassa in all its magnificence. There’s no getting round the stunning beauty of Africa, even if every critter in it is out to eat you.

But the only regulators are the hippos and crocs. Once in a while, brother hippo rams a canoe, and if the native fishermen don’t drown, cousin crocodile is waiting in the reeds as they come ashore—the lake is the first place I’ve been where I’m afraid of getting eaten.

This Is Africa—TIA, my friend. Governance is a mirage and white men are walking targets—they structure businesses and provide employment and are easily tapped for money in a society that fails at miserably at both.

On my way out of the country, the security guy pulls me aside. “How many meticais are you carrying?”—the local currency trades at about fifteen bucks per thousand. I’m ready for the question—most of my stuff is stashed in a money belt, and the wallet is fool’s gold.

“About five hundred.”

“Show me.”

I open the wallet and show fifteen hundred mets.

“And the other side?” My friend knows all the patter, but I’ve seen this movie before.

He sees a few euro banknotes.

“Are you with the Red Cross?” He eyes my safari vest.

“Not Red Cross.”

“When are you coming back?”

“In three months.” Wait for it…

“Do you have any meticais you don’t need?”

I pull out a five hundred, slip it to him, and I’m on my way. Five minutes later he passes me, smiling and holding hands with a female security officer. TIA.

As I board the plane, I remember the last words from Malaria Man. “When I tested negative, I went to see the doc. Ah told him the bladdy test was negative.”

The doctor turns to him. He’s a local man from the Songo, where the disease is endemic. “My friend, you have malaria. You must get treated right now!”

“Doctor, you’re sure you haven’t made a mistake?”

The doctor gives him a tired look.

“All my mistakes are dead.”

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

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