Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Paradigm

September 26, 2020

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

More palindromic than scatological. Perhaps scatodromic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stressed?Desserts.

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

The Crazy Islands

September 19, 2020

Perhaps because of the travel freeze, I’ve been dreaming about a faraway setting for my next book—it’ll be a historical novel, building on The India Road and Clear Eyes, and will be set in the sixteenth century.

By the early 1500s, Spain was enthusiastically moving towards the New World—by the turn of the century, Columbus had completed his third voyage to the misnamed Indies—while Portugal expanded its reach in the old world.

Cabral sailed for India in 1500, ‘discovering’ Brazil for Portugal in the process. As I wrote in Clear Eyes, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón discovered Brazil in 1499—there is evidence he landed in Pernambuco, a state in the northeast. However, the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed five years earlier, meant that the new territory was on the Portuguese side of the meridian line splitting the unknown world between the two Iberian nations.

The Wikipedia entry for Pinzon credits him with the discovery of Brazil, whereas the entry for Pernambuco categorically states it was discovered by the Portuguese. This is one of the weaknesses of Wikipedia—when you jump to the second page from the first, the narratives don’t match.

Vasco da Gama sailed again for India in 1502 to consolidate the ‘hostile trading’ approach—gunboats were the essence of his persuasive powers to force the locals to grant  trade monopolies to Portugal.

My main reasons for writing Clear Eyes were to debunk the myth that Columbus was a visionary mariner and to provide a balanced view of the two most important seafaring nations of the time, both located in the Iberian Peninsula. I believe it matters that the whole eastern endeavor was well organized and took decades to plan, whereas the attempt to find a western passage to the Indies was haphazard at best.

The most likely setting for my new book is Indonesia—the Portuguese were most certainly there, as evidenced by words such as gereja (church), jendela (window), and sepatu (shoe). Loanwords that appear in other languages are the linguistic equivalent of a genetic marker and tend to be used for concepts or items that are foreign to the country—churches were certainly a XVIth century novelty in Java and Sumatra, and given the climate, windows and shoes likewise.

Of course, the Portuguese were in search of trade, and their quest took them to the spice islands of Maluku, in eastern Indonesia.

The English, with their natural ear for other languages, mispronounced them Moluccas (Molukken in Dutch), but the etymology is clear—these were the crazy islands (Malucas) of the Portuguese, where the ship’s compass behaved in erratic fashion.

The Ilhas Malucas, from a map drawn in 1613 by Dutch cartographer Johannes Blaeu.

But is that really the origin of the name? The Arabs were in Indonesia from the XIVth century onward—which partly explains why Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation—and the spice islands were apparently called Jazirat al-Muluk, the Island of Kings.

Which raises another interesting question: does the Portuguese word for crazy come from the Arab word for king? In Arabic, crazy is مجنون (majnun). Google Translate spells ‘king’ as malik, but clearly malik and muluk are the same word, just rendered differently in the European alphabet.

The crazy islands are the only places in the world where nutmeg and cloves are grown—in XVIIth century London, ladies held an orange stuck with cloves to their delicate nose to ward off the disgusting smell of running sewers.

Indonesia is a fascinating paradox, so I won’t be short of great material, all of it true—and often much stranger than fiction. As an example, Thailand is renowned for it’s third gender—generally called ladyboys—but Indonesia also has an abundance of transgender folks, a perplexing characteristic for a Muslim country.

In Bahasa Indonesia, the word for woman is wanita, and the word for man is pria—transgenders are termed warias, a contraction of the two words. Many warias are sex workers, but other jobs are also popular—when President Obama lived in Jakarta as a youngster, his nanny, Edie, was a waria.

Given the polygamous nature of Islam, some men have both female wives and waria—a somewhat unusual arrangement in the penis-count department.

One of the main differences between waria and ladyboys is that whereas in Thailand, for many transgenders an aspirational aim is to save money for a sex change, warias are not that keen.

The main reason is religious.

We believe we were born as men and must return to god as men.

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

Tears of Salt

August 29, 2020

Cod is one of my recurring themes—over the last decade, I wrote three or four articles on the enduring battle between Man and the elements—centuries of expeditions to the fishing grounds of the north Atlantic.

The Portuguese have fished bacalhau in Newfoundland since the XVth century—the earliest records are from 1472, when the Azorean captain Joao Vaz Corte Real first made landfall, christening the territory ‘Terra dos Bacalhaus.’

There are multiple stories of Portuguese journeys further west—and a statue of his son Gaspar in front of the confederation building in St. John’s. The Corte Real family were mariners and armadores—fleet owners—and in search of the lucrative cod grounds, it is entirely possible that the sons, or some of their captains, made landfall and explored parts of eastern Canada.

In these exploits, Joao Vaz and his two sons Miguel and Gaspar were covertly encouraged by the Perfect Prince, John II of Portugal, who was banned by the 1479 Treaty of Alcaçovas from securing overseas possessions north of the Canaries—Las Islas Afortunadas.

All this took place well before the time of John Cabot, the man credited with the European discovery of Canada; there is a strong possibility that the Bay of Fundy was named by the Azorean explorers—with a maximum depth of one hundred nine fathoms, the name  Baía Funda (Deep Bay) is most appropriate—phonetically, the English pronunciation of the two words is practically identical.

Almost all the cod fishermen from mainland Portugal came from one of three locations: the southeastern Algarve, particularly the area around Fuseta, the central town of Aveiro, and the northwestern village of Vila do Conde, near Oporto.

Aveiro has been famous for centuries for its salt—sal, in Portuguese—from which the word salary derives. Considered the best in Europe, it was essential over the centuries for preserving food—and thus surviving winter—prior to refrigeration.

To the south of Aveiro, the small fishing village of Ílhavo was the main source of men who joined the yearly campaigns run by the Salazar government for fishing the Grand Banks.

Some of the men who spent six to eight months of the year fishing for bacalhau in Newfoundland and Greenland, using tiny boats called dories.

The council built a museum to honor the Campanha do Bacalhau, and they have a digital site where you can find any fisherman by name—because of the national obsession with administration, particularly during the control-freak period of fascism, a very complete database is available, which even tells you whether each person had a catholic wedding!

Surnames in Portugal, as in other countries, are regionally distributed—in the photo I selected, most of the fellows called Manuel Pata are from Ilhavo. One of them was a ship captain—I wonder if you can guess from the face which one. If you search for Guerreiro (Warrior), almost all the men are from the Algarve.

The museum is of course conditioned by COVID-19, but it remains open, and its main exhibits are in two adjacent halls, one of which houses a replica of the upper part of a two-mast schooner (lugre, in Portuguese)—although the ones that went on the campaigns that began in the 1930s were four-masters.

Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to board the vessel—I didn’t see any kids on my visit, but there’s nothing kids would remember better than scampering around on the huge deck.

Other parts of the display are less interesting, but next to the ticket office there’s an amazing metal sculpture of a cod—I spent some time trying to discover who made it, and how I can get one for myself—stay tuned.

A few of the old lugres have survived—the Creoula is a naval training ship, and the Santa Maria Manuela was bought and rebuilt by Portugal’s largest cod producer—it now belongs to a major food retailer.

The ship was named after the owner’s wife—she had sixteen kids, so maybe she had the patience of a saint.

Trawlers gradually replaced line fishing, and when the United Nations approved the Law of the Sea and the creation of Exclusive Economic Zones, the game was up.

Life was harsh on board the schooners, with men sleeping at the bow, two to a cot, for only a few hours a night. Fishing started at dawn, which during spring and summer at higher latitudes means 4 a.m., and work often ended only at midnight, by the time fish were salted, livers and tongues removed, gear repaired and stowed.

Brave men, escaping poverty, providing for their family, and paying a terrible price—many of the men were back on the ships every year, during which their children grew up without a father. Dories got lost at sea and in the fog—the Grand Banks are the foggiest place on earth.

Now, how about that captain?

He’s the young guy with the mustache in the bottom row.

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

Land Ahoy!

August 9, 2020

I spent the week on a boat—a truly responsible vacation in these virus-ridden times—a couple of anchor lengths from the nearest vessel, no strangers around, about as self-isolated as you can get.

The boat was moored five hundred feet from shore, in about three fathoms of water, on the lee of a barrier island in southeast Portugal.

Around me, a number of Spanish yachts, escaping the confusion in their own country, and a few charter craft. At sea, your neighbors change all the time—some folks were day trippers from nearby marinas, others settled in for a few days.

The view from the top, taken with a drone hovering over the mooring area. The beach is just visible on the windward side of the barrier island.

Near my thirty-six footer, small bream meandered, and a dozen grey mullet appeared to live under the hull. Mullet have a varied diet: they’re very fond of detritus and thrive in pretty disgusting conditions—not my cup of tea—but they’re certainly popular in parts of North America.

Years ago, I used to sail every few weeks in a small, open fishing boat on the great estuary of the Tagus—going out in the early morning, with the beautiful city of Lisbon to the northwest, and watching the sun rise over the water.

I’d head out to the tidal flats—about one third of the one hundred-twenty square miles of estuary are dry at low water—that once housed one of Europe’s most important oyster grounds; as we passed the main outlet ditch of the local brewery the smell of hops and malt was thick in the air—back in the day, the effluent went straight into the water.

When we had visitors on board—particularly women—the skipper would pound the hull with his boot and the mullet would start jumping. Invariably, a couple of large fish would leap into the boat, and someone would reach over and tip them back into the water.

The little fish that wandered around my houseboat prompted me to buy a rod—while I was at it, I bought a lure to try and jig some cuttlefish. I had a lot of fun messing around with both, but the fish managed to eat the bait rather than the hook—apparently mullet are particularly good at delicately removing worms or mussels from the line without touching the hook at all.

The boat had a rubber dinghy with an electric motor—barely powerful enough to oppose the current, but very ecological. The wealthy folks on the yachts were content to sunbathe on deck and occasionally lower a jet ski and shatter the calm—no one seemed keen on going ashore.

A COVID dream come true—empty beach for miles and miles.

The outer rim of the island never had anyone on it—you could close your eyes and imagine yourself cast away by pirates. One morning, far away to the west, a small group appeared, bent double near the waterline, picking surf clams. Near them, a fishing rod was buried into the sand, the line extending way out into the Atlantic.

On my last evening, the boat ran out of water—it was more of a nuisance than a problem, but it reminded me that the Portuguese sailors of The India Road were constantly faced with the challenge of shipping enough fresh water for the next leg of their journey.

The all-important refilling of the water barrels was known as the aguada—after Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, he dropped anchor at what is now Mossel Bay—the bay of mussels.

It was the third day of February, and the bay became known as Aguada de São Braz—the Portuguese sailors regularly named bays, capes, and rivers after saints, whereas the Spanish often used royalty.

The coastline therefore became a litany of holy men and women, all of whom had their own assigned day.

São Brás (Saint Blaise), in a painting from the Basilica of San Giulio, Italy.  This saint is particularly good for throat ailments—he might come in handy during these troubled times.

Today is Saint Theresa‘s day, so a Portuguese mariner during the XVth or XVIth centuries might well have named an African Cape or a Malayan island in her honor if the occasion arose.

A nautical chart from that period—and the Portuguese were renowned for their cartography at the time—presented a verifiable timeline that could be cross-checked against a ship’s log. These maps are therefore special, since they contain information about both time and space—and since points of interest were named by different expeditions, we can use the dates to validate the various journeys.

That’s why we’re certain that the first white man to set foot in South Africa, on February 3rd,1488, was Captain Bartolomeu Dias, the sailor who opened up the India Road.

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

Forego

August 1, 2020

It’s official—the summer vacation, that great European institution, has been beaten by a virus.

Today is the first of August, and a Saturday at that—throughout Europe, that means packed highways as tourists head south and immigrants head home—in case you’re not a local, both travel in the same direction.

But not this year.

Europe is suffering a second round of COVID-19 and politicians are battening down the hatches.

Both Americans and Europeans will forego their traditional holidays, or perhaps we should spell it for ego—politicians have truly screwed this one up, inflated by their egotistical notions of power and self-absorbed in the egoism of electioneering.

Instead, the power lies with the virus, which, unlike the politicians, applies a simple, effective, and consistent strategy. Its requirements are a host, i.e. humans, and a mechanism to spread.

As soon as it finds a host, it uses the typical tools of any coronavirus to propagate: it replicates at a high rate inside the organism and then expels the troops to the environment by making the host sniffle, sneeze, and cough.

Apart from those involuntary lines of attack, humans are for the most part quite content to assist in voluntary ways—they touch themselves and each other, talk in close proximity, travel and live in close quarters, use air conditioning in restaurants—familiarity breeds contempt.

As a result, Americans are drifting in a morass of unhinged and aimless policy (that was the smallest ‘p’ I could find) mainly (mis)directed by hapless politics.

Brazil is a disgrace, compounded by poverty, and it is only one of various Latin American hotspots.

And Europe, still reeling from the first wave, is now gathering steam for the second. Weird ideas like safe corridors for holiday travel, discretionary quarantine impositions that vary in time and space, and bizarre and contradictory advice are rife.

You will, for instance, be pleased to note that Her Majesty’s Government requires no quarantine when traveling to the British Antarctic Territory—bear in mind that may change overnight due to an infected penguin.

Vacation is a first world concept, so the virus has only whipped the Western World, but in so doing, it has demonstrated how easy it is to bring civilization to its knees.

The second wave came early to Europe, it was scheduled for the fall—contrary to the orange man’s empty wisdom, this virus seems quite comfortable with the heat.

And the current flavor of the virus has undoubtedly mutated, but we’re not sure how, and we don’t seem concerned. Is it more virulent? Has it adapted to target younger people? Older?

In the US, all the evidence points to a continuing first wave—both the virus and the debate continue to rage, both now focusing on re-opening schools—Mr. C. is rather looking forward to it.

The late fall will bring the third wave to Europe (the artist formerly known as the second wave), because Europe will once again bring this summer spike under control—by September, the curve will again be flattened, three weeks hence amnesia will resume, and five weeks later Mr. C. will have another go.

But by then it would be winter, as Neil Young famously sang, and Mr. C.’s friends will all come out to play.

In the U.S., as November 3rd approaches, confusion mounts. There’s no guarantee the first wave will subside, and if it does, the second will be rearing its ugly head.

The orang-u-tan will inevitably be thrown out, but the vote will take a while to count, with accusations of rigging spreading faster than Covid in a south Texas barroom.

One thing we should have learned by now—little Mr. C loves uncertainty and confusion.

The year is 2020, and we could be back in the Dark Ages—medical knowledge is replaced by whimsy, and the US stock market surges on borrowed cash while Main Street wilts.

And humans do what they love best—mass debate.

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

Deposition

July 12, 2020

There are six monarchies in the European Union.

Back in the days of the EU28, The most emblematic monarchy, and certainly the one that had most Netflix seasons, was the British royal family—a source of parody as far back as I can remember.

Some of the European monarchies are so self-effacing as to be almost invisible externally. I doubt that many Europeans could tell you whether Denmark is a monarchy or a republic, and the same is probably true of Belgium or the Netherlands.

Kingdoms are a paradox for me, having grown up in a republic. On the one hand, European kings have been institutionally neutered, so the practical consequences of having a head of state who is elected or one chosen by god are similar, at least in systems where the executive power lies with an elected government. On the other, divine right has always struck me as an aberration.

In countries such as France, which have a presidential system, power is vested in one man—this requires strong institutions to ensure balance and equity. if there’s one thing humans discovered over the last three thousand years in their quest for social structure, it is that you cannot put too much power in the hands of a single person.

Put another way: if you give someone power, they will abuse it.

The political castration of the European monarchy does project the power of the prime minister—in the UK, Bojo is not concerned with trivialities such as presidential vetoes, as the head of government of a European republic might be.

The monarchy generates affection, even love, whereas presidents don’t—hardly anyone knows about the family of the head of state of Austria or Portugal, but the comings and goings of blue blood are a source of constant discussion—almost as if their antics are happening in your own family, or to a close friend.

The Brit royals supply an endless source of gossip—internal plots and power grabs, financial scandals, adultery, and even the recent Epstein drama—plenty of material for the coming Netflix n’chill season.

Spain, and particularly the ex-king of Spain, comes a close second. I’m not sure the Spanish love their royals as the English do, and the country has twice been a republic—it’s first bout lasted exactly one year, when the king was replaced by a dictator in 1874—not a huge improvement on the status quo.

On April 14th, 1931, a second, ill-fated republic was born. It led to the gruesome Spanish Civil War—less than four generations ago, for anyone who thinks this is ancient history! Many young people these days are lucky enough to have a grandparent in their eighties, and they will recall these events from childhood memories.

Franco, who was a big part of my youth, took power in 1939 and became the longest-serving dictator in modern European history, from 1939 until 1975. In 1947, the Caudillo declared that he was in fact a regent for the Spanish king—in so doing, he took a leaf out of history—many an illegitimate ruler has used the umbrella of regency to govern.

In the meantime, Prince Juan Carlos was educated in Spain, after some resistance from Franco. In 1975, just after the Portuguese revolution, Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias finally ascended to the Spanish throne.

Franco’s hold on power was over. In next-door Portugal, where the new king of Spain had spent his childhood, revolution was in the street.

Demonstration in central Lisbon for gay rights in 1974. Revolutionary street art, seen on walls that had never been touched by graffiti, was often very funny.

The anarquists, known locally as Anarcas, had some of the funniest wall art, and certainly the most pithy sayings. Liberdade às sardinhas em lata, or freedom for tinned sardines, was one of them—another was Franco no espeto, a play on the phrase ‘chicken on the spit’, a local delicacy.

The concept of the ageing Spanish dictator on a rotisserie skewer was irresistible to a country with new-found freedom, rooting for its neighbors who were still imprisoned in the straightjacket of fascism.

Over the years, the Spanish king has been involved in a number of scandals, in true royal tradition. Several of these involved the fair sex—a Castilian Catedrático once told my father, lowering his voice to a stage whisper, “Los Borbones son muy mujerengos!

Whether or not that’s a general trait of the male members (excuse the pun) of the House of Bourbon, it certainly applied to Juan Carlos. Spain doesn’t have the tabloid enthusiasm of the British press, but of late the more ‘serious’ papers have been referring to the retired monarch’s ‘ex-friend’ Corinna Larsen.

The Spanish have a habit of dropping the hyphen, so the lady in question, once married into the aristocratic Wittgenstein family, is euphemistically referred in the Spanish press as the king’s examiga, or exfriend—the implication is she dropped more than a hyphen.

The scandal now consuming Spain provides some much-needed light relief from COVID-19, and adds some spicy seasoning to the whole affair.

It includes alleged threats to the examiga by the Spanish intelligence agency CNI, and more recently, revelations that Juan Carlos received a one hundred million dollar gift from Saudi Arabia’s king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, for his role in ‘facilitating’ a contract for a high-speed rail link between Mecca and Medina, known as AVE del desierto.

The project cost sixteen billion dollars, so a hundred mil is small potatoes—less than one percent—but the king apparently placed his gift in Switzerland, and subsequently used the money to help his examiga buy property. The lady in question allegedly told a prosecutor in 2018 that she received sixty-five million euros from the monarch—at the time still king of Spain—out of ‘gratitude and love.’

Now that’s a whole lotta love.

And it probably explains why the former king decided to step down in 2019.

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

Kitchen Wars

July 5, 2020

In the West, Russians are often depicted as dour and humorless—but humor is one of the great weapons in fighting tyranny.

The best jokes—and the best music—come out in times of adversity, and all tyrants hate to be laughed at. From pocket-bullies like the orange man to proper meanies like Uncle Vlad, mockery is their kryptonite.

Never has so much fun been poked at an American president, but after he loses the November election, no one will ever laugh at him again—that’s the way of the world. Putin, on the other hand, has just achieved the ambition of every putative dictator—the lifetime award.

Xi Jinping pipped him to the post, but then no one in their right mind would call China a democratic society—and in their defense, the Chinese government makes no pretense of it.

In China, memes, video, and indirect references—particularly puns—are all the rage when it comes to political pushback—witness the banning of Winnie The Pooh, for obvious reasons, and the use of the number 2 in protest of Xi’s push for more than two terms, such as in the mathematical inequality N>2.

A classic, reproduced from my article over two years ago.

In the Middle Kingdom, the term is egao, or evil works, and internet egao is rampant.

In 2009, the ‘grass mud horse’ appeared, with Chinese characters cǎo ní mǎ. The word ma is one of the best known to Mandarin beginners, with its five meanings depending on the character tone: mother, hemp, horse, and scold. The final ma is the equivalent of a question mark.

Of the set above, I was unfamiliar with mud, or cǎo. A small change to cào nǐ mā converts the sentence into ‘fuck your mother’—the grass mud horse first appeared to poke fun at government censorship of vulgar humor.

Hu Jintao was very keen on harmony—dissenters often quipped they’d been ‘harmonized.’

In Mandarin, harmony is made of three characters: bèi hé xié, or simply hé xié. In this vein of humor, the Chinese speak of being ‘river-crabbed’, or bèi hé xiè. Note the only differences are the character river (), and crab (xiè).

The river crab is an ecological foe of the grass mud horse—at least to Chinese netizens.

This particular harmony takes the piss out of Jiang Zemin’s three represents: economic production, cultural development, and political consensus.

More on all that here, but let’s move east to the banks of the Volga. As you might expect, state TV paints a rosy picture of life in Russia that isn’t matched by the food in the kitchen. Russians call it the ‘battle between the television and the fridge.’

Putin’s robust approach to foreign policy, together with expert media manipulation and disinformation, is giving the victory to the TV, even if supplies are dwindling from the chiller drawers to the icebox.

Anti-government humor has no place in Russia, whereas it is used as a tool by the regime to great advantage. When the UK suggested Russian involvement was ‘highly likely’ in the Skripal poisoning, the typical Brit understatement grew wings and appeared everywhere as a source of mirth.

The Soviet Union gave us some classic anti-tyranny anekdoty, such as this gem.

On a sunny morning, Brezhnev goes out on the balcony of his apartment, looks to the east, and says, “Hello, sun!” The sun replies, “Good morning, dear Leonid Ilyich, the beloved leader of our glorious socialist motherland, the hope of all progressive humanity, and the guardian of peace on Earth!” In the evening, Brezhnev admires the beautiful sunset and fishes for a compliment: “Hello again, sun!” The sun answers, “Poshyol na khuy—go fuck yourself—I am in the West now.”

The Putin equivalents don’t seem to target the man himself, so much as taking the piss out of his counterparts.

Vladimir Putin is calling the White House. Hello, Donald? I would like to discuss Ukraine with you.”
Trump: “What’s Ukraine?”
Putin: “Thanks, Donald!”

There are, however, a good many jokes circulating about Putin that are not so flattering—the emphasis is on corruption and the president’s immense wealth, and on his strong-man foreign policy, predicated on occupation.

America’s strength comes to the fore when compared to the examples above—even a Fox anchor suggested to the Republican National Committee chair that MAGA should stand for Masks Are Great Again, and managed to get a smile.

Trump is physically incapable of smiling at something like that—I doubt he’d manage a grimace—but ever the opportunist, he’s now declared support for masks, even joking he’d wear a Lone Ranger one. Never mind that the famous radio show character from the 1930’s covered his eyes, rather than his mouth and nose—I prefer to focus on his Comanche sidekick, called Tonto—in Latin America that means ‘idiot.’

If the COVID stretch continues, you’ll soon hear the orang-u-tan tell you how he’s always loved masks, and that he was one of the great instigators of mask-wearing. Folks will gasp in amazement, and clips will be played stating the opposite, but none of that will count.

Everyone’s a sucker for the old reality show. Yet all the humor persists, from late show hosts to YouTube memes, and the virus insists on chasing Trump’s re-election into the grave.

The RNC is coming soon to a non-curve-crushed venue near you. After that, it’s a whisper to November. And on that day, the US will begin to recover from it’s worst mistake in decades.

I could write this article in the States. I couldn’t write it in Russia or China. And that makes all the difference.

By the way—what MAGA should stand for, if folks come to their senses, is Masks Are Good for America.

Trump will be defeated by a nanoparticle.

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

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.

Reboot

May 31, 2020

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

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

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

Robert Burns, November 1785

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

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

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

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

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

2020 is about to reboot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spurious correlation

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

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

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

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

And now it truly is broken.

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

The Four Horsemen

May 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The virus.

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


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