Classic

July 28, 2019

I recently rebuilt a classical guitar—with a touch of irony, the guitar was made by Suzuki, a Japanese corporation.

This is the Suzuki Violin Company, not the automobile manufacturer, and like good wines, the guitar is numbered—Number 34, to be precise—the company itself was formed in 1887.

The classical guitar is traditionally a concert instrument, but it’s also the workhorse of popular music in Southern Europe. The cheesy duo that drifts into your beachside restaurant and starts yodeling interesting covers of Paul Anka songs—in the sense of the Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’—will most likely be armed with a Spanish guitar.

It’s a winning strategy, because you must pay them urgently to shut them up—if the local fare doesn’t paralyze your digestion, their version of Dean Martin’s ‘That’s Amore’ most certainly will.

Most boys learn to play guitar for a simple reason—to pick up girls. By and large, if the strategy works, their musical pursuits are quickly abandoned as other interests raise their head, so to speak.

Classical, or Spanish, guitar is a pretty basic instrument. In its original form, the strings are tied to the bridge using a fisherman’s knot, and there is no cutaway. My Suzie has eighteen frets, but above the twelfth you hit the treble end (or upper bout) of the body—whatever you can play above that line depends on the length of your fingers, but forget bar chords.

The neck is thick, particularly when compared to the slim fretboard of an electric guitar, and the nylon strings are also thick—and difficult to keep in tune—when compared to steel strings. Truss rods are almost unheard of and the action is too high, which affects the playing speed.

All this makes Suzie difficult to play, which is a mixed blessing—frustrating when compared to more modern guitars, but if you get it right on a Spanish guitar, playing it on an electric is real easy.

Guitars are a good investment—this one is now set up as a lefty, and probably worth about three hundred bucks. If you get into the pre-war Gibsons or other lofty heights, start adding zeroes.

Although a classical guitar is more of a challenge, it has a lovely, warm sound—you can get a lot out of it by finger picking, rather than using a flat pick. A good number of rock guitarists started life learning classical guitar, and the Spanish guitar influence is obvious when they solo—one example is Robby Krieger, from The Doors.

The young Argentinian boy who plays this classical guitar version of Titanic—a tune I don’t much care for—demonstrates what you can do on a Spanish guitar. Apart from the cutaway, which gets him to a couple more frets—but he’s eleven, and has small fingers to match—the guitar you see is a pretty basic job, just like my Suzie.

Compare that to the Music Man played by Albert Lee in this amazing version of ‘Country Boy’. The Music Man electric guitar company was bought by Ernie Ball, a well known string manufacturer—and a great example of a name that matches a profession. I keep a list of those—one day they’ll make it into an article.

Albert Lee’s guitar—he’s so good this is the Albert Lee signature model—has twenty-two frets, which is normal for an electric, and it’s pretty obvious from the shape he can get at all of ’em!

Along with that, there’s all sorts of electronic wizardry, including Seymour Duncan pickups, as well as a tremolo arm. You’re looking at about two grand, and no exotic woods—ash for the body, maple for the neck.

The history of the guitar goes back four thousand years, but Suzie is only forty-seven years old. When you compare her to an offering from the early XIXth century, she looks pretty much the same—the only major difference is in the strings, which are nylon rather than sheep gut.

When you consider how far electric guitars have developed in the last fifty years—not to mention all the wonderful gadgets that project, modify, and record sound—you get a feeling for the warp-speed of technology change.

The most wonderful thing about this evolution is the symbiosis with humans—we have developed and mastered a vast range of techniques that only shine when you pump up the amp. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, vibrato, all manner of arpeggios…

And now there’s a very deep YouTube—a tribute to learning, and to the joy humans have in sharing knowledge. How much better to do this than fight all the time.

I use the YouTube knowledge daily, and every time I do, I wish it was around the first time I ever learned the chord of G, when Suzie and I first got acquainted.

Any twelve-year-old boy who wants to impress the girls by picking a tune now has YouTube at his fingertips. And the girls can do it too!

When it comes to guitar picking, the world is definitely flat.

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

Moon

July 21, 2019

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, and the subsequent moon walk—and we’re not talking Michael Jackson here, folks!

It may therefore come as no surprise to you that the subject is bombarding us like cosmic rays. The moon landing was, if you’ll excuse the pun, a landmark achievement for mankind—and I saw it all on TV.

My particular take on the subject matter is somewhat different—I’m not interested in the noun, I’m here for the verb. To moon, according to Merriam-Webster, means ‘to expose one’s naked buttocks to.

Furthermore, I’m not here strictly for the verb, but as a way to land on today’s theme: assholes, which are at the very core of performing the moon. This is fertile, if pungent, territory—I can smell the mercaptans from here.

To celebrate the anniversary, I could begin with the extended roster of assholes who believe the moon landing never happened. The Guardian discussed the whys and wherefores a few days ago.

We could then progress to a pair of consummate assholes who currently outperform their peers in one of the most asshole-dense professions—politics.

One of them made a particular ass of himself on Thursday by thrusting kippers at a sympathetic audience of UK Tories.

The other, if you excuse the pun, is simply assiduous—some form of colonic tephra is at play, turning him into a truly pyroclastic asshole.

But I’ll be frank, what got me into this was a New York Times article on old dogs. It was past one in the morning when I got back from a jam session, and I spent a little time communing with my ageing hound. She will turn fourteen in a few months, and I had a brief chat with her.

I told her how much she would have enjoyed the music we were playing—I know that for a fact because she’s stone deaf. At present, the quality of the musical experience is directly proportional to the distance from the band, but things are improving.

In my teens, playing in a band inevitably led to a doobie or two, and unavoidably the odd beer was consumed. These days, it’s just the music—kitsch though it sounds, that’s a high in itself.

There’s a complicity in a band, as there is in an orchestra, a football team, or a chef’s kitchen—until that exists, the whole can never be more than the sum of the parts. It takes time, hard work, and patience—you can’t make a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.

This morning I woke up early wondering whether the world had set itself alight already over a couple of oil tankers—in other words, I went asshole-hunting, and chanced upon a New York Times article on old dogs.

I read through the symptoms of ageing: aimless walking, anxiety, attempts to eat stuff that isn’t particularly edible. I found it interesting that cannabidiol (CBD) is apparently used on hounds.

This beautiful hound is probably a straight shooter, but one does suspect he may have been at the deadly yellow snow.

Seek and ye shall find. The American Kennel Club provides an overview of what is known about CBD and dogs—right now I’d say the evidence of benefits is at best anectodal.

The ‘Times’ article is nice, and it made me curious about the author—a young lady called Tessa Miller. Turns out she has a seriously difficult life—and that really got me thinking about assholes.

Her story about Crohn’s disease is simultaneously terrifying, poignant, and funny. Above all, no one can fail to admire her courage.

Writing is hard. Writing about chronic illness is impossible. How do you explain the inner workings of a broken body that society expects (demands) to heal? How do you illustrate pain so extreme it makes you leave your body and crawl on the ceiling — the secret pain that healthy people don’t know exists? How do you resolve your two selves — the one that passes for “normal” and the one that survives, hidden at home and in hospitals? How much of the second self do you reveal to family, friends, strangers? How do you share the loneliness?

Ms. Miller writes well, and above all she writes with brutal honesty. Both are hard, but being this forthright about yourself takes a rare kind of guts. And it’s guts we’re talking about here, because Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or IBD, in its more severe form, is a raging battle between the immune system and the gut.

I never believed this was a Freud quote. It is in fact by William Gibson, a celebrated steampunk writer.

In a way, Tessa Miller and the man on the moon share a tale. Each in their own way, they both demonstrate how humans can be so much better than the assholes that surround us.

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

Fake Views

July 14, 2019

Picture a summer idyll in tropical waters. Now here’s something that fires the imagination, azure, transparent… I feel a song coming on.

Maybe it’s the colors, so impossibly turquoise as the water shimmers in the sunlight. Or the way you can see into the deep, stare into the soul of the ocean.

This is the stuff of dreams. Where exactly are we going?

Aaah, Siberia.

Wait a minute! Where?

WHERE?

Er… Siberia, comrades. Welcome to Novosibirsk.

I’m not sure why Millennials are obsessed with unicorns, but I’m sure they’re on fleek. The struggle to get instagrammed at Lake Whatsitsname, preferably avec unicorn, is most definitely real.

The plastic unicorn may not bask for long, given the toxicity of this earthly paradise…

In case you’re not familiar with Novosibirsk, here’s a quick primer. The first port of call is Wikipedia, which ‘informs’ us:

Travellers coming from countries with mild climates may find Novosibirsk’s winter tough, but it may not be extraordinary for those from northern countries. At times, bitter cold may hold for some days, but temperatures of −40 °C (−40 °F) and lower do not occur every year.

Apart from the bizarre Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion, which I suspect is fake news, the city’s mean January temperature is 2.3 °F (-16.7 °C)—tropical it ain’t.

Far more emblematic than tropical lakes were the Gulags that dotted Siberia—the area around Novosibirsk sported its fair share.

Novosibirsk, in SW Siberia, was the administrative home of three Gulags: Kamenlag, Novosibirsklag, and Siblag.

But we’re on a trip to the Saldives, right? So let’s not have a bad trip, man. We’ve done our research, so here we go. Get your DTP and Hep A shots, and you’re all set.

Now is a great time to travel. But should you prefer winter, my favorite travel site tells all.

Climate Siberian Maldives january

On average, it is maximum -11° in january in Siberian Maldives and at least around -22° degrees. In january there are 1 day of rainfall with a total of 14 mm. The it will be dry 13 days this month in Siberian Maldives and on average, it snows 17 days in january.

Suitable month for: winter sports

I love the ‘at least’, and I’m not entirely sure what ‘the it’ actually is, but given the snowfall predictions, I suspect you may struggle to kitesurf.

When we arrive, we’ll be treated, if you excuse the pun, to a Saldivian landscape of azurity—please note this is from the Wibaux travel blog, rather than any legitimate source.

In the Maldives, as in other areas of tropical ocean, a warm water layer overlies the cooler (but still extremely pleasant) deeper layer. Energy supplied by the sun creates permanent thermal stratification, so the two water masses never mix.

For the aquatic ecosystem, this means that the nutrients required for plankton to grow are unavailable—solar energy by itself will not suffice, so the upper layers of the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, or the Australian Great Barrier Reef are not productive—devoid of suspended particles, the water is completely transparent, and enough light reaches the bottom to allow corals to thrive. The lower-energy red wavelengths are quickly absorbed by the ocean, leaving the greens and blues to penetrate and scatter, and turning the water that beautiful turquoise color.

Saldivian Azurity (the term has grown on me), however, is derived from chemical reactions. The man-made lake is a dump for coal ash and coal waste from a large power station, which supplies most of the energy to the city’s 1.6 million inhabitants.

The pollutants in the Saldivian lake include heavy metals such as mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic—just a short list of the nastier ones.

The multiple internet reports of this new Millennial paradise have two things in common: first, all the ‘articles’ are simply plagiarized from the original—stolen without acknowledgement; second, nowhere (except here) is there any attempt to go beyond the original—my source was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, Andrew Roth.

How bad is the metal pollution? An average home uses 3.3 MWh every year—if this particular power station supplies seventy-five percent of the households in Novosibirsk, we’re at 300,000 homes, so the coal plant would be rated at about 200 MWh.

I’m assuming this coal-fired extravaganza is not the zenith of environmental stewardship, in which case we can consider a load of 0.6 g of mercury per kWh, and 44.9 g of lead per kWh—A little math gives us an annual load of one hundred twenty kilograms of mercury discharged into the Saldives. For lead, those numbers jump to 9000 kilograms—nine metric tons!

Your dream destination. If you plan to frolic with plastic unicorns, do make sure you select durable plastics, of the kind found all over the ocean, otherwise they may not survive the dip.

I won’t roll this out to the other metals, but these two are enough—they both cause severe disorders of the nervous system—Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter was poisoned by mercurous nitrate used in the felt.

Instagrammers of the world, beware!

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

Turn The Page

July 6, 2019

In the last couple of months, my free time has been filled with books and music. Not that I find the words ‘free’ and ‘time’ popping up in the same phrase that often, but you play the hand you’re dealt.

On the music front, this meant finding a rock n’ roll band to play with. Easier said than done, my friends, but now we jam twice a week—I find it immensely curative. When times are tough, everyone needs to hook on to whatever works.

Some people find love—or find it again, others take up meditation, gardening, or yoga. Therapists make a bunch of money out of folks who seek professional help. Boris Johnson, or Bojo, as he’s known in Private Eye, builds model buses out of wine boxes.

Bottom line, everyone needs something. When things go wrong, the bad spaces need to be lined with good things, so that the silver lining slowly edges the clouds away.

Writing is a silver lining for me, playing music does the same.

In my case, the key trigger for this therapy has been death. Over the past two years, friends and loved ones have been dying or falling gravely ill at an unsettling rate—you quickly discover all these events have a profound effect on you, and somehow the disappearance of someone you love means you carry a little—or a lot—of their burden.

Compounded, the weight adds up.

Often, the small things unsettle you—perhaps because you focus on fighting the big ones, and suddenly the memory of a particular city, situation, or synergy digs a hole where you thought there lay solid ground.

I find myself more attracted to history, to books that guide you through a life, than to novels that focus on a sequence of banalities—however well-written such fiction may be, and how imaginative the plot!

After reading about Churchill, I’m now immersed in a similarly excellent biography of Napoleon. Churchill exhorted us to ‘Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.

I’m not personally interested in statecraft—I believe any indulgence in politics would destroy what little common sense I have left, but I’m fascinated by the twists and turns of those who make history.

Napoleon and Hitler have often been compared, but they were quite different beasts. In the first place, the XXth century was without a doubt the age of ideology—Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Fascism, Imperialism, Liberalism… The isms go on.

On either side of this ideological sandwich the world is quite different. We now struggle with Trump, Putin, Xi, Duterte, Salvini, or Farage—in many ways we regressed to the XIXth century and earlier, when nation-building and politics were projected into one person. The world we live in now has echoes of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Charles V, Elizabeth I, and the Perfect Prince.

None of those historical figures had much truck with ideology—the leitmotif, if you excuse the redundancy, was themselves. Sure, in some cases there was a beating of the religious drum, but it’s difficult to see that as central to the ruler’s theme, the main objective of which was self-aggrandizement.

Napoleon was a complex and brilliant man, who held various posts during the troubled years that followed the French Revolution. He is on record as saying that if the kings of France had not been executed, the revolution would have gained a foothold in Britain and a number of other European countries—If he was correct, think how different Europe might look now.

Instead, the National Convention condemned the king and queen to death, and the royal courts of Europe reacted by declaring war on France—arguably, this is the root cause of the Napoleonic Wars.

Another book on my summer list was described by John Le Carré as ‘the best true spy story I have ever read.’ This is fulsome praise indeed from my favorite spymaster—of course he’s a cold war aficionado, but ‘The Spy and the Traitor’ is well worth a click.

Like a man with two lovers, I drift from one book to another as the fancy takes me—both are captivating, demanding, and seductive.

Summer progresses in a bizarre way, with Scandinavia and Southwest Europe chilly and damp, and a red-hot filling that has shattered temperature records in France and elsewhere.

A few good books and hot tunes is what we need in the meantime, tempered with a wee dram.

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

Inequity

June 22, 2019

Central Africa is the forgotten world. In the Congo, as I write these words, war and pestilence rage on.

The very terms war and pestilence would strike fear into the heart of any medieval European—nowadays they are occasionally newsworthy, although pestilence is a word you seldom hear.

A tour-de-force of improvisation—a wooden bike hewed to assist a refugee with his meager possessions.

The province of Kivu has been at war in one form or another for years—the main reason is mineral wealth. A website that seems as fossilized as the Belgian Congo describes Kivu’s geology.

– Bengo-Biri: wolfram deposit enclosing crystals of ferberite and pseudomorphoses in anthoinite.

– Kobokobo: beryl and columbite pegmatite of which a zone is mineralized in uranium. The latter presents a particular association of uranium and aluminium phosphates rich in new species. They are quoted under the heading dedicated to type species preserved in the Royal Museum of Central Africa, in Tervuren.

– Lueshe: carbonatite characterized by an abundance of pyrochlores, and type locality of lueshite in octahedral crystals.

– Maya-Moto: this deposit contains a rich association of bismuth minerals: native bismuth, bismutite, bismuthinite and bismite.

– Mwenga: auriferous district of the river Mobale which has yielded voluminous nuggets.

– Messaraba-Munkuku: deposit of crystallized cassiterite, which is one of the localities of varlamoffite, yellow and powdery hydrated oxide of tin.

– Volcanos: the volcanic region straddling on the border with Rwanda contains lavas from which several new species have been described: andremeyerite, combeite, götzenite, delhayelite and trikalsilite.

The remaining provinces of Congo do not contain such spectacular associations, with the exception of the rich diamantiferous deposits exploited in the kimberlites, the eluviums and alluviums of the region of Mbuji-Maji (mainly industrial diamonds) and the gold mines of the Upper Congo (Kilo-Moto).

The text above mentions King Leopold’s museum in Tervuren—not a place the Belgians boast of—a tribute to the barbaric occupation of the Congo. I’ve written on the museum before, and mentioned that at one point it boasted a sinister collection of photographs of tribesmen with their hands and feet cut off for not collecting rubber.

Clearly the Congo didn’t get the best of starts—and not much has improved since independence.

Butembo, in North Kivu, is the current epicenter of Ebola. The city has a population of 670,000 and is a stone’s throw from the Ugandan border. It takes nine hours to travel the 300 miles from Kampala, and five to fly in from Kinshasa.

The WHO, Doctors Without Borders, and the local medical community are experimenting with  a new Ebola vaccine—the relationship between the medics and the local tribe is complex, since many people believe the disease was introduced by the aid workers.

The coincidence in the arrival of virus and doctors is not easily explained to the Nande tribesmen, and aid workers have been killed as a consequence.

The first ever registered Ebola outbreak hails back to 1976—in forty years, the Congo has had ten outbreaks of the deadly hemorrhagic virus.

This twenty-seven year old soldier was photographed by the Guardian in 2018, and is now presumed dead. He had a major intestinal wound and weighed four pounds shy of five stone. If the virus spares you, the war may not.

As the West moves placidly into summer, people you never heard of, in a country that merits one minute of news once in a blue moon, are dying from a disease which is as obscure as it is terrifying.

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

The Rogues

June 20, 2019

After spending a whole week in Ireland and England, during which both the weather and politics were disgraceful, I concluded that the U.K. is having a miserable June.

I flew out of a cold and wet Belfast, and by the time I got to Paddington the rain was coming down in sheets. Even the Ubers were begging off—it took three attempts before a Romanian in a silver Mercedes made it to the pick-up point.

The other two drivers who pulled out were also foreign, as was the waiter who brought me dinner, all the receptionists at the hotel, and most of the staff in the office block where my meetings took place.

Later in the day, when Bojo, as Private Eye calls him, took a significant lead in the hustings to become leader of the Tory Party, and therefore prime minister of the U.K., I heard Boris senior on the BBC. Stanley is an avid attention-seeker, and he was more than happy to comment on Bojo to Auntie Beeb.

‘Have you spoken with your son yet, Mr. Johnson?’

‘No, but he sent a message using something called WhatsApp. It’s a new thing, have you heard of it?’ he asked the interviewer (who replied ‘No’).

The Boris team is keeping the Beano-like character under wraps because the man has two things in common with Trump—crazy hair and a natural bent for shooting himself in the foot.

In Private Eye, Boris and his acolytes are often displayed as a set of Beano characters.

With such a significant lead (114 votes, to 43 for his closest contender, Jeremy Hunt), the best thing for Bojo is to keep his mouth shut to avoid clangers.

After the Conservative Party received the trouncing of a lifetime at the hands of Farage’s Brexit Party—the irony that it happened in the vote for the European elections, which the UK should by then not have been a part of, was missed by no one—many feel that stonewalling Brexit will be the end of the Tories.

As I dealt with both business and pleasure in London, it again and again became apparent that the transport and hospitality industry will collapse without foreigners. I recurrently heard Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, as well as the languages of Eastern Europe—you’ll hear them in many key sectors of British society, of which the NHS is the most important.

Nevertheless, the people have spoken, so leave England must, dragging with it the whole of the UK—of the other three, only Wales (pop. 3 million) voted to leave.

The EU set a limit date for Halloween (who says Brussels doesn’t have a sense of humor), and all the Tories running (of which there are really only three or four in the running) strenuously emphasize that Britain will leave—the degree of stridency about leaving without a deal is what sets them apart.

How easy is it to leave without a deal?

To analyze the question, let’s first look at the opposite—leaving with a deal. Theresa May failed miserably in her attempts to do so, Brussels has repeatedly stated there will be no further negotiation, and Boris is intensely disliked by the European Union.

Some of the other contenders for the Tory leadership have been involved in the Brexit negotiations—they all know exactly what’s achievable, i.e. nothing. In their hearts, the British also know this.

The House of Commons will not support the current deal. But will also not support a no-deal exit. One of the ironies of this process is that many Labour constituencies who voted leave have a ‘remain’ member of parliament. Those MPs, who sit in Westminster, are stuck between a rock and a hard place—they are fully aware that their constituents will crucify them.

If those MPs back a no-deal, the consequences for livelihoods of their voting base will be considerable—the voters will blame them and throw them out. If the MPs do the opposite, their voters will react with fury—betrayed by their representative, who will be thrown out.

Unfortunately, for the conservatives, much the same is coming. If parliament finally approves the same deal (since no other deal is likely), hard-line Brexiteers will be incensed. If it doesn’t, and Johnson forces a hard Brexit, a general election is almost inevitable.

To force a hard brexit against the will of the politicians, the only option is to prorogue parliament—effectively suspending it over the limit date so MPs cannot block the withdrawal. The main (pro)rogue, Dominic Raab, is out of the race, but there are still a few rogues left.

The debates have been appalling, without a glimmer of an idea. Today, only four candidates are left, and by tomorrow we’ll be down to Bojo and Hunt. Of course, it may be that the usual Tory skulduggery steps in and chucks the current second, replacing him with Gove or even Sajid Javid—Rory Stewart was apparently only carried through so Tories could hear him debate.

Historically, as both Thatcher and Major discovered when they beat the front runner, the top dog doesn’t win—maybe when the vote goes out to the Conservative Associations the  curse will rise again.

Whoever wins, the exchange rate of the pound will flutter on the wings of the forthcoming discussions, reflecting ebb and flood. The coming months are short—July means vacation time in northern Europe, August is the same in the south—before we know it, there’ll be trick-or-treat.

One or the other, but not both. Five days after Halloween is Guy Fawkes night—maybe this time the houses of parliament really will blow up.

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

Bear Shirt

June 9, 2019

The Viking god Odin was the greatest of all magicians. He is a fascinating character—his name means ‘Master of Ecstasy’, and the deity is represented as a tall, old man, sporting a long grey beard.

Odin the Wanderer, as he was depicted in a late 17th century oil, has only one eye—the other, he exchanged for wisdom. Such trade-offs are not uncommon in mythology, where something of personal value—even the soul, in Robert Johnson’s case—is exchanged for a supernatural skill. For divine concessions, there is no free lunch.

Odin’s counterpart in the Norse polytheism is Freya—like him, she has a broad remit. Not for Odin or Freya a single purview—storms, crops, or hunting—between the two, they cover wisdom, sex, sorcery, fertility, runes, war, and death.

Odin was known to encourage war at a pretext, along the lines of Nietzsche’s famous quote:

You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say unto you: it is the good war that hallows any cause.

The Norse god was interested only in warriors of the truest mettle, and one particular group has endured through the ages.

The Viking god Odin followed by a berserker, represented in a Torslunda helmet, one of four bronze plates found on the Swedish island of Öland.

These were the berserkers, from which the word ‘berserk’ derives. In ancient Norse, this is a compound word: ‘ber’ means bear and ‘serk’ means shirt—both terms led to the equivalent English words.

Berserkers did not fight in armor—they dispensed with it, choosing only sword and shield, fighting in a trance-like state. A curious description of their behavior comes from the Ynglinga saga, by Sturluson.

His men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them.

Where did Odin’s berserkers get their supernatural fighting qualities? Shamanism is often referred, but that explains little—it’s another way of describing a trance.

Drugs have been put forward as a possibility. Colossal amounts of alcohol would certainly induce indiscriminate rage, but also probably have a serious effect on coordination and motor skills. The English slight ‘Dutch courage’ is used to evoke alcohol-induced bravado—a staple of soccer fans worldwide, but there’s no evidence of enhanced fighting skills, just heightened aggression.

Magic mushrooms have their own place in mythology—in this case, the highly poisonous Amanita muscaria has been put forward as the trance drug. The fly agaric is certainly a potent beast—strong enough to kill you—and it has been reported as a hallucinogenic element in shamanic rituals in Lithuania, northern Sweden, and Siberia.

The known effects don’t suggest it would be immensely successful for massive episodes of sustained violence where the perpetrator is incapable of discriminating between friend and foe—all in all, the drug theory is tenuous.

Which doesn’t leave us with much—except the certainty that the berserkers existed, that the onset of a trance-like state was signalled by chewing and gnawing of shields and skin, and that when the berserkergang began, friends knew to get out of the way.

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

No Nation

June 1, 2019

I crossed the border just south of Aachen—the French name is Aix-La-Chapelle. I’d been driving east for ninety minutes, after escaping the evening traffic in Brussels.

I was hopping over to Germany to look at a car, marveling at how easy it is to trade across countries in the EU. Two things make it extremely simple to buy a vehicle in any European country and transport it within the union.

The first is the four freedoms, which were established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and subsequently reinforced, culminating in the Treaty of Lisbon, fifty years later. This is one of the brexit blocks, and part of the great nationalist groan —businesses and citizens alike will only realize how convenient the freedoms are when they’re gone. Young people who have no idea what a border really is will clamor to roll back.

The second is the internet, which acts to reduce market stickiness, letting you visualize, price, and compare a vast range of products and countries.

As I drove past the historic city of Liège, overtaking trucks from Poland, Hungary, Portugal, and Romania, I was focused on spotting the sign with the gold stars separating Belgium from Germany—perhaps it was hidden by a truck, but I  never saw it.

Observant fellow that I am, I noticed I was in a different country because of the highway signs and the quality of the road—the autobahn was a couple of notches above Belgian freeways. The speed limits on my GPS disappeared, I saw the wonderful white sign, and I put my foot in the tank—the big Volvo surged forward, and I wondered why we don’t take a leaf from the German playbook.

According to Eurostat, the five most dangerous traffic areas in Europe are in Bulgaria (two), Portugal, Luxembourg, and Greece.

The most dangerous roads in Europe. Germany doesn’t feature.

Luxembourg? Hmmm… I’d never guess, but the rest are easy. When it comes to freeways, many countries don’t release data—but for those that do, there’s no evidence that inexistence of speed limits is dangerous. Calculated per billion km driven (about 600,000,000 miles), highway driving in Germany is pretty safe, even though 35% of drivers exceed 130 km h-1. In fact, counterintuitively, the US has the lowest speed limits but the most fatalities.

International Deaths per billion km driven
Country All roads Highways
Austria 6.88 1.73
Belgium 7.67 2.07
Czech Republic 15.73 2.85
Denmark 3.40 0.72
Finland 4.70 1.94
France 1.70
Germany 5.00 1.74
Slovenia 7.77 3.17
Switzerland 5.60 2.90
United Kingdom 3.56 1.16
United States 7.02 3.38

Across Europe, nationalists had voted with enthusiasm—none more so than the Brexit party supporters, who (as expected) trounced the Tories. But France also showed a preference for Marine Le Pen’s hard right, and in Belgium the ultra-right Flemish party Vlaams Belang did well.

I went to a working city in North-Rhine Westphalia and amused myself people-watching. This is the land of beer and sausage, and I sat in a bar with ordinary folk as I worked through a plate of pig’s knuckle and sauerkraut.

I felt right at home, as I do in any European country. Around me were people eating and drinking victuals that were quite different from the fare in Southern Europe, the piped music was German, and some young guys were playing cards around a large table.

Germany continues to have an extended number of national rules—they’re very fond of rules—and I didn’t see signs of a European ‘culture’ forced on them. The last time I’d been in this area, I bought my very first turntable, made by a company called Dual. It was the early nineteen seventies, only a handful of countries were in the EU, and my family smuggled it back home—as I recall, any family trip involved smuggling to some degree.

This is not because we were criminal masterminds—pretty much everything that went across borders paid duty, either because it was too valuable, too cheap, or too something else—everyone smuggled.

I remember the trip very well—my first time in Germany, and I was beginning to get a taste for beer–I only knew a couple of words, and one of them was Schallplate. What I don’t see, almost fifty years on, is a dilution of German identity—a common accusation by nationalists.

Graffiti on the restroom door in a Rhineland supermarket. Since German Nationalists wouldn’t write in English, I expect Farage ducked in for a piss.

I don’t see it in Britain either—if anything, Britain has become prouder of all things British—beer still comes in pints and is still flat and warm—no one makes any effort to speak a foreign language, and the xenophobia I experienced when I lived there in the seventies and eighties is still prevalent.

It is exactly because of the gap between country and (European) community that nationalists are wrong. Countries that have produced their own independent legislation have the same limitations as the EU, but few of the benefits.

In the quest for my car, I prepared a list the evening before, told the salesman to leave me alone, and went through it methodically point by point.

As it happens, the product didn’t tick enough boxes, but that’s okay. I  see it as a dry run, an opportunity to establish personal relationships—which despite the internet continue to be paramount—and to learn about the process. Documentation in Germany is different from France, Italy, or Spain, and there are a couple of European requirements you need to know about, so I certainly don’t consider it time wasted.

The art of the deal is knowing when to walk away.

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

Mayday

May 26, 2019

I considered May Day as an alternative title, but I chose the more panic-stricken naval distress call.

The resignation of the British prime minister has been on the cards for a while—and now it’s official. If she were a monarch, her epithet would have been May the Moribund, the Westminster equivalent of the zombie.

Hard-core supporters of Brexit love to point out three things:

  • Contrary to doomsday predictions, the UK has been doing fine after the referendum vote in 2016
  • Border delays or paralysis due to a no-deal scenario are a conspiracy of Project Fear
  • The EU needs the UK far more than the UK needs the EU, so trade agreements are assured

I don’t agree with the doomsday stuff, but then only fools believe economic predictions. The whole concept lacks a paradigm, and empirical predictions for both economics and weather only work in the very short term and in the long term—though that last one is questionable.

Apart from  the lack of a paradigm, economic forecasting is inevitably flawed because it deals with humans. It can potentially work if it is unadvertised. The prediction is made, locked in a drawer, and revealed a year later, whereupon it is found to be reasonable. The Achilles’ heel is that it has to be disclosed to be acted upon, at which point humans react, thereby shifting the model conditions and outcome.

But my main objection is because people react, they don’t proact—in other words, they haven’t acted yet because there was nothing to act upon.

There still isn’t, but it’s a comin’ to an economy near you. The UK is now firmly between the devil and the deep blue sea—the ocean is the forthcoming rapprochement with the US, if a hard-line Tory such as Johnson or Raab becomes prime minister. Trump will encourage this, partly because he sees Brexit as a confirmation of his line of isolationism.

May succeeded Cameron following his resignation, and the appearance of a substitute Tory now will set a poor example of yet another unelected prime minister—Brits like to choose their leaders at the ballot box.

The trouble with calling elections is the Tories will lose—and that’s where the devil comes in.

Jeremy Corbin is a red rag to the business bulls, and most in the conservative party are scared to death he might show up.

If a Tory brexiteer takes the helm, WTO rules are the most likely outcome—the deadline is Halloween, and many EU politicians feel that the dog and pony show laid on by the UK since 2016 is sinking the union itself and must be stopped.

As usual, ordinary Brits are completely self-absorbed, and completely fail to understand that most citizens of Europe don’t give a shit about all the UK toing and froing.

Border issues will be a reality, at least for some time, because national connections are generally difficult unless simplified through agreement, which is precisely what EU membership provides.

Trade, on the other hand, is a different matter. Even with a no-deal exit, trade deals with Europe will in time be forged—it just won’t happen now.

What will happen now is the following, if my crystal ball is to be trusted. Despite (or perhaps because of) his buffoonery, Johnson will be the next prime minister.

The UK will move to leave the EU as quickly as possible. Since no alternative deals are on the table, or apparently acceptable, this will be a fracture, rather than an amicable parting. The UK will attempt to quickly strike bilateral trade relationships.

Quick is tough, as Trump learned the hard way with NAFTA and China. It’s easy and populist to break agreements—think Paris Climate Change, Trans-Pacific, and Iran.

Doing nothing after is possible, perhaps even popular, but unless you’re addicted to the poison cup, consider why Obama and others entered into treaties in the first place—the answer, of course, is for the common good. It’s possible that previous leaders misjudged those benefits, and the conditions thereof, but it’s unlikely—there is only one world power in the field of poor judgement, and that’s the orange man.

The UK joined the common market for the same reason, i.e. the common good, although a majority of British citizens now feel they will do better outside it—that was a nation’s democratic choice, and it must be respected.

Should there be a second referendum, the UK has been obsessing about the questions—the solution to that is trivial—a second referendum would have three: Leave with no deal; Leave with the deal; Remain. If the two leaves combined beat remain, then the higher of the two leaves stands. If they don’t, the vote is remain.

The ‘deal’ was the May deal, now it would be whatever else is forthcoming. If we take Brussels at face value, whatever other deal comes to the table won’t differ much from this one.

But there will be no second referendum—diehard Tory brexiteers will prefer to leave with no deal, and the devil take the hindmost. In this case the devil is Corbyn, and he will.

After the Halloween Brexit, the Labour party will clamor for a general election—this will happen within a year, at the latest, to avoid fracturing the whole country. At that stage, Johnson will lose, and the Tory leadership will pass on to someone else who will take the party through the inevitable desert crossing that awaits it.

This narrative is a sad one for Labour, because it will be in charge of a Britain hamstrung by Brexit, bilateral deals of any significance will be a distant twinkle, and it’s impossible to visualize Corbyn as an international deal-maker.

If my crystal mojo is working, then in one year Johnson will fall, and in one legislature Labour will fall. The Conservatives will return to power in a few years on the fallacious argument that the left made a pig’s ear of Brexit.

As with any self-inflicted wound, the periphery suffers first. England’s progress will be interesting to watch, but the reaction of Scotland and Northern Ireland will be fascinating.

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

USE

May 18, 2019

Churchill was a huge believer in the lessons of history, but simultaneously he recognized that people are ‘Unteachable from infancy to tomb.’

You can and should learn from those who write history, to help you understand those who make it—Winston did both.

You know I rarely recommend books on these pages, except of course my own, but as I come to the end of Walking With Destiny, I feel like I’m watching history die.

This is all the more acute as the European elections approach, and nationalism is once again on the rampage—to cap it all, I’m going to Brussels early the following morning, so will learn the aftermath in the capital of what Farage and his supporters consider the axis of evil.

Churchill—the master of the analog tweet—confided in 1918 to Violet Asquith, ‘Kill the Bolshie; Kiss the Hun.’ By then a veteran of Omdurman, India, the Boer War, and World War I, he understood that after a war, you must rebuild. In the lead-up to the next world conflict, he swallowed his anti-communism—washed it down with a dram from Stalin’s poisoned cup.

By the time of the Blitz, in 1940, only one year after the start of the Second World War, he said that after the war was won ‘There would be a United States of Europe, and this Island would be the link connecting this federation with the New World and able to hold the balance between the two.’

He certainly helped promote the coming together of Europe—though without Britain. In a speech at the University of Zurich in 1946 he again spoke of the U.S.E., and in 1949 the Council of Europe was established through the signature of the Treaty of London—in 2019, the irony is unmissable.

By 1951 the Council led to the European Coal and Steel Community, which included the Benelux, France, Italy, and West Germany. It’s a reflection of the importance of those industries that the first iteration of the EC felt it necessary to include them in the name—there’s a little irony here also in Trump’s emphasis on coal and steel, sixty-eight years on.

The Benelux flag, created in in 1951 to celebrate the union of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg.

Two critical factors changed Churchill’s narrative about Britain’s role at the center of the twin united states: the first was the loss of the empire, and the second was Britain’s adhesion to the Common Market in 1973, alongside Ireland and Denmark.

The Irish saw their new club as a way to push back on the historical oppression from their eastern neighbor, and the Danes saw it as a tool for escaping the Scandinavian elephant—Sweden and Denmark fought eleven wars between 1521 and 1814.

The English took the opposite stance throughout the history of the European Union. Skeptical about the principles, uneasy as members, and opposed to the common currency.

An English friend of mine once defined the three pillars of nationality as the right to declare war, make peace, and issue currency. The UK has all three, the Eurozone only two, but the currency issue is a throwback to the empire—the greenback replaced sterling as a reserve currency one hundred years ago, and the mandarins of Whitehall never made their peace with the success of the American upstart—the euro added insult to injury, particularly since it’s seen as a rebranded Deutschmark.

It seems the only Europeans who get the importance of the forthcoming European elections are those who want to shatter the union. Like Churchill, I understand that a house is built brick by brick, and that all it takes is a wrecking ball to shatter the walls.

It was the European parliament that gave Farage his soapbox—something the UK electoral system would never have granted him. The coming gaggle of MEPs—my new collective noun, to honor their verbosity—may represent a European babel of break-up, in which case we can expect a new war in Europe coming to a nation near you. It may take a decade, or a generation, but come it will.

Or we can hope Churchill was wrong—maybe some people are teachable some of the time.

It’s a tough call, but there’s a new kid in town. Gen Z, who search for truth, must now lead the way, for the times they are a changin’.

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


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