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.


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.


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.

Made in China

May 12, 2019

Look at your belongings—much of what you own is made in China. The Middle Kingdom is the world’s factory, and the United States is the supermarket—in this simplistic view of planetary order, Europe is the museum.

In particular, China is the semiconductor capital of the world, which makes it a powerhouse in tomorrow’s digital society.

The orang-u-turn decided to show America how a deal is really done, taking on the tariff war to please an electorate that depends on all things Chinese—the poor and disenfranchised in the States buy the cheaper goods, hardly any of which are made in the USA.

China stands accused of unfair trade practices—largely driven by government support or participation in business. Europe and the US, on the other hand, draw a clear line between private and public sector, and fight monopolies and cartelization.

At the heart of the dispute is the enormous trade deficit between the US and China, but also the obligation of foreign companies to disclose trade secrets in order to operate in the Middle Kingdom—like Robert Johnson at the crossroads, US corporations sell their soul to the devil so they can play guitar.

Americans see all these aspects as unfair, and the Trump narrative of bringing back blue-collar jobs is the Eldorado, but quite how this is to be done is, to quote Churchill, ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. A typical factory worker in Shenzen receives 2725 yuan per month, or around four hundred bucks, while their equivalent in the US gets $22,425 per year—a monthly salary of almost nineteen hundred bucks.

If the labor cost of product manufacture increases five-fold, you can expect a price hike. But analysts worked out that the cost difference of a US-made iPhone would only be a hundred bucks if all parts were made in the States.

If this were a job-rich activity, the difference would be much higher, so these numbers tell the story in one word—robots.

So, no new jobs. But those hundred bucks are make-or-break when it comes to price wars, and a lead weight for folks already below the waterline.

Semiconductors R Us. Computer City in Guangzhou, China.

When it comes to the garment industry, or other labor-intensive manufacture, the problem differs—here, blue-collar America would be out of their new-found jobs in a heartbeat, unable to compete on price.

The only way the weaving and dyeing of the industrial revolution might return to developed countries is through AI, and the same is true for much of the heavy industry sector, including steel production. As long as there are folks in Asia, Africa, and South America prepared to work long hours in dangerous conditions for paltry wages, no tariffs will ever save the Western World.

Furthermore, in the West the environmental costs to our waters and to our atmosphere are too high a price to pay. Legislation enacted through the US EPA, the European Environment Agency, and other agencies adds to the costs of production, making it impossible for North America and Europe to compete.

In the US, the American way of life is widely regarded as a summit to which other nations aspire; this regard is itself aspirational—few Europeans would agree. The annual quality of living survey shows the top US city (San Francisco) comes in at number thirty-four, and eight of the top ten cities are in Europe.

The perception that the American way is the way, and the lack of understanding of other societal models, is at the root of the collapse of the trade talks. The Chinese Communist party implements a command economy with a bruising fist, just as the Soviets, East Germans, and so many others did in the past.

Since Deng Xiaoping—the little bottle—China started applying a different economic model, using test areas such as Shenzhen, but no Chinese thought for one second the regime would fall.

In practice, private enterprise has always been beholden, and at the highest level controlled, by the Party. In Chinese society, the two are inextricably linked—it is possible for politicians to do business, but it is not possible for businessmen to do politics.

The notion that an American businessman, and not a particularly good one at that, will impose a new value system upon the Middle Kingdom is laughable. Chinese society, as it stands today, will never accept a private model where government is not involved—it was government that set up China Inc.

China has a number of disadvantages in this war, including exposure, but it has two major advantages—time and control. Time, because like the Taliban, it needs only wait for the next US election, voter fatigue, or an economic crisis in the US, and North American priorities will quickly shift—this is partly why democracies have a tough time with asymmetric warfare, as evidenced by Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Control, because the Chinese political system can make the country turn on a dime and stay the course—whereas the American elephant can’t dance. Control, because severe economic hardship in China is enforceable, whereas in the US it’s not. Finally, control, because as Mao famously noted during the Korean war, ‘one dead American is a tragedy, one million Chinese is a statistic.’

Nanjing Dong Lu, leading to the Shanghai Bund, part of the International Settlement (1863-1941)

The Chinese know they are the celestials, and they resent everything about the mei guo ren—long memories do not forget the oppression of Chinamen who built the American railways, the Shanghai international concessions, the Korean war, and US support for Japan and South Korea.

In this foolish and naive attempt to impose societal change through trade negotiation, Trump is once again making a poor decision, regardless of how unfair Chinese trade practices really are, or are perceived to be.

Just as with Kim Jong-un, the border wall, and the anti-immigration laws, the orange man is seeking a second term using a simple recipe to please his base—he wants to show he tried, and build the narrative that he won. Whatever needs to be completed will be done in the following four years—in the minds of simple people, the story flies.

A year and a half away from the US elections, the Democratic field can only be described as chaos. And although the sitting president has solved nothing, he stands every chance of being re-elected.

With respect to his self-serving objectives, Trump shows extremely good judgement, as he has all his life.

From an international perspective, the forthcoming American election is a struggle between Russia and China. Regardless of the Manchurian candidate controversy, it is unquestionable that Russia is stronger if China is damaged and the European Union weaker.

Election meddling will again be rife, with the Chinese supporting the Democrats and the Russians backing their man.

May you live in interesting times.

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

The World Crisis

May 5, 2019

It is unusual, and probably unwise, to comment on a book I haven’t read—I will avoid doing so, but the fact that it was written almost one hundred years ago, contains three thousand two hundred sixty-one pages, and is authored by Churchill, makes it rather special.

I’ve had a lifelong admiration for Winston Churchill, and am currently working through a new biography written by Andrew Roberts—weighing in at 1152 pages, Walking with Destiny is not a light tome.

At present, I’m traveling through the late nineteen-twenties, when prohibition was law in the United States.

Churchill was immensely fond of booze—he once said ‘I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me’. During prohibition, he visited the US and declared, ‘we realize one hundred million pounds sterling a year from our liquor taxes, which I understand you give to your bootleggers.’

Churchill’s ruse to get a free pass for drinking in the States during prohibition.

The context for the doctor note is highly amusing, but it does highlight one invariant aspect of Churchill’s life—he was always strapped for cash. One of his most reliable sources of income was writing, the other was speaking—very few people were so consistently pithy—he was the master of the tweet one century too early.

From his oratory, Churchill claimed he lived ‘mouth-to-hand’, and he earned many millions from these twin pursuits—he blew the money on good food, booze, entertainment, Chartwell, vacations, poor investment decisions, and the occasional Rolls-Royce.

Any book, and in general any manifestation of art, must be layered, by which I mean that not only should it have an overarching theme, but several sub-themes should be present. If the final product deals well with the main theme, finds connections across these sub-themes, and wraps everything up to the reader’s satisfaction, that is a good book indeed.

In my books, as in my blogs, I strive to achieve this—I’ve found that the overall theme must be established before pen strikes paper, but not the sub-plots, which ebb and flow as the manuscript grows. Authors differ on this—Ken Follett apparently develops a pilot with a few dozen pages, works on that, discusses it, and then grows a book from there.

By contrast, one of my favorite authors, Donald Westlake, who wrote the Parker novels as Richard Stark, said he never knew what the next page was going to be like—since he didn’t know, the reader couldn’t possibly guess it—an admirable quality in a writer of crime thrillers.

Churchill’s opus magnum was written about the First World War. Since the great man was born in 1874, he will have been forty years old at the start of the Great War, but that didn’t stop him doing a stint in the Flanders trenches at a place called Ploegsteert, known to British soldiers as Plugstreet.

One thing that emerges through Churchill’s life is that he was incredibly brave, but also astoundingly lucky. He tested fate on horseback, in airplanes, in the trenches, and even crossing the road.

The other thing that this wonderful biography makes clear is how little we have learned from the cataclismic convulsions of the previous century. In Churchill’s own words, ‘Unteachable from infancy to tomb — There is the first and main characteristic of mankind.’

That aspect of the book fills me with unutterable sadness. No doubt Churchill felt the same when he wrote The World Crisis—perhaps he felt in writing it that his many readers might after all be ‘teachable’.

Not so, as demonstrated by the Second World War. Between the wars, when the loyal toast was drunk at his club, he would follow the words ‘God Save The King’ by quietly muttering ‘And No More War.’

To counter all this tragicomedy, or maybe to emphasize it, I leave you with a classic British show that deals with the nonsense of politics by planting tongue firmly in cheek.

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


April 30, 2019

It’s been said there are three kinds of truth.

Your truth, my truth, and the truth.

Throughout history, this is a fair classification, one that’s been shown time and time again to be, er… true. In good measure, that’s because there are absolute, unquestionable truths, and then there are others.

The acceleration of gravity, the boiling point of water, or the latitude of London are not points of debate—they may be points of argument, but they can be settled quickly and definitively.

On the other hand, the classification of terrorism, the standards for political correctness, the efficacy of acupuncture, or the importance of the Roman Empire, are points of relative truth—even if there is a consensus, there will be some disagreement, as we sink into the quagmire of opinion.

Opinion-makers, influencers, and pundits in general have historically spread their views in the vertical—supporters, disciples, or followers could be relied on to propagate the good word.

In religion, these are priests or mullahs; in politics, spin-doctors, party members, and reporters; in administrations, zealous bureaucrats. The truths spread in this manner fall into the latter category—they’re points of interpretation.

That in itself is bad enough, particularly because the proponents don’t hesitate to stir in a few factoids to support their points. This leads for instance to the concepts of heaven and hell, for which there is absolutely no evidence, but which have been drummed into our heads since birth.

We could pick up on other ‘truths’ that are simply a matter of perspective—Brexit is one example, but unfortunately there are many others, which have led to poverty, calamity, and world wars—for some reason, sensible ideas are not as attractive as bombastic change.

This is quite odd, because all human education is conservative—not from the political angle, but in the sense that we emphasize what works. Children are naturally conservative, I would imagine due to natural selection—the genes of kids whose penchant would be to dive off cliffs or under trucks would not feature prominently in subsequent generations.

The vertical, and therefore somewhat limited, propagation of ideas (‘truths’) has been upended in the digital world. Yes, it’s true that social media still uses the old labels: friends, followers… but we live in a flat world—one which allows fake news to spread instantly from peer to peer.

Common folk have more in common with each other, by the very nature of the term, than they do with Trump or Putin, and ‘truth’ spread in this fashion is often highly appealing.

It can also be highly dangerous.

One example is vaccination, particularly in children—which leads us into the realm of medical history.

The one thing that is absolutely clear is that the consequences of vaccination are part of the first group of truths, the one that is absolutely unquestionable.

In 1978, two English scientists, Roy Anderson and Robert May, published a seminal paper in the Journal of Animal Ecology. This and subsequent publications led to a mathematical model based on probability, which became known as SIR—Susceptible-Infected-Recovered.

The initial approach has become more nuanced through the years, and the ‘R’ doesn’t always mean Recovered—it can mean Removed, and that’s the whole point—you can die from disease.

Model results show what can happen in a disease such as measles when immunity is low.

The SIR model allows you to forecast the distribution of the host population into classes—for a serious disease such as measles, the red band has been kept low through vaccination.

A pathogen needs a host to survive, so if the number of susceptible humans is very low, the disease is in practice eradicated. However, the most important thing to remember is that these relationships are non-linear. One pathogen makes two, and they in turn make four—it’s the story of the chessboard and the grain of rice.

Stories that link autism and other conditions to vaccination are rife on the net, and this has led to a dangerous reduction in the use of vaccines, particularly in urban areas—perhaps city folk are just dumber, and to make matters worse there are more of them in close proximity.

The problem is summarized in a report from the University of Warwick, in the UK.

Measles is a highly contagious disease – before the introduction of vaccination more than 90% of individuals were infected before they were 10 years old – which has serious associated complications such as pneumonia, encephalitis, hepatitis, acute diarrhoea and death. Measles is no longer endemic in countries such as the USA, Finland and the UK due to successful vaccination campaigns. However, the disease does remain endemic elsewhere, and so regions which are measles-free remain at risk of outbreaks from imports of the disease.

In 2014, the vaccination rate for one-year olds was 93% in the US and 91% in the UK. But in London, according to this study, the overall vaccination rate is 88%, compared to 95% in the whole country.

The consequences of lowered immunity in a population are tragic—they start slow, but geometric growth has no mercy—if by the eight square of the chessboard we are only up to 128, by the time we finish the third row we’re at 8.4 million.

Cases reported this year in the US by state (courtesy of the Washington Post)

In the US, opposition to vaccines such as MMR has gone viral, if you excuse the pun—Brooklyn’s orthodox Jewish community is one example. The consequences have been very serious—many doctors in the States don’t even know what measles symptoms look like, since the disease was considered eradicated in 2000.

Non-linearity brought it back in twenty years. This has resulted in extreme public health measures: in Los Angeles, California, large numbers of students were quarantined after an outbreak last week. In Rockland County, New York, any infected person found in a public space faces a two thousand dollar fine.

In truth (my truth, in this case), you can’t blame folks for being naive or uninformed, or ready to believe nonsense—after all, look at who they elected for president.

But you can blame the ones who spread false messages—like Columbus, they trade in opinions uncontaminated by facts.

This is another example of how social media and fake news can combine to be a force for evil—in this case for death—a couple of children in every thousand who contract measles will die.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s the devil to shove it back in.

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

Sail On

April 21, 2019

In the year 1505, a young sea captain called Lourenço de Almeida sailed south along the west coast of India, attempting to round the huge sub-continent, much as Bartolomeu Dias had rounded Southern Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in 1488.

Given the huge distance that separates Western Europe from Southeast Asia, it’s remarkable that after only seventeen years, the Portuguese fleets were ready to enter the eastern side of the Indian Ocean, on their way to the ever-more mysterious East—Malaysia, Indonesia, and finally the Middle Kingdom.

Further still, lay the shores of Zipangu, Marco Polo’s Land of Rising Sun, that so teased Columbus—the man who went the wrong way and found Haiti instead.

Lourenço, or Lawrence, discovered the tiny Maldives, but he also made port at a large island off southeastern India, which the Portuguese named Taprobana.

The name was immortalized by the great poet Camões, whose primary work, the Lusíadas, written in the style of Virgil and Homer, tells the epic story of Vasco da Gama and his men.

Taprobana, an island twice the size of the US state of Maryland, became known as Ceilão to the Portuguese, and later morphed into Ceylon—today it’s called Sri Lanka.

Lawrence died in 1508 at Chaul, a stone’s throw from Mumbai, doing battle with the Muslims—an endless story that brings us to the tragedy of Easter Sunday, 2019.

The five shields and seven castles of Portugal, still visible today in the ruins of Chaul, India. Catholic saints on either side offer protection, and the Cross of Christ stands guard above the ensemble.

Throughout the morning, most radio and TV stations went about their usual programming—CNN consumed by the Mueller report, the BBC following its regular schedule—it took over a dozen hours for the major news stations to cover the Sri Lanka massacres in earnest.

Shortly after the tragedy began, a listener calling into the the UK’s LBC pointed out that had this happened in Germany, Britain, or France, the news would be rolling non-stop for a week.

When Notre Dame burned down, I wondered if there hadn’t been a helping hand from Islam—the whole thing happened suspiciously close to Easter. I’m very happy there wasn’t, but the Christian places of worship are a favorite target of terrorists.

After the 2016 attack in Lahore, Pakistan, I was moved to write The Swing. If you haven’t read it, today would be a good time. Easter week, and Easter Sunday in particular, seems to be a popular time for terror, and the notion of attacking places of worship, havens of peace, is unconscionable.

Shame, shame, SHAME! Every religion has a hell, and those who committed this crime will burn in theirs. May there be peace to the two hundred or so dead, and their inconsolable families—for them, Easter will never be the same.

The only way to celebrate their memory is to extol diversity, promote the things that make us good. In the words of Churchill, “Do your worst, and we will do our best.”

Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese, and later by the Dutch. The Dutch didn’t leave much in the way of culture, or in the way of genes. The Lusitanians built families, left music, food, and language.

The catholics who died today will largely be part of the seven percent of the population descended from converts. Their details will be released at some point, and will undoubtedly include family names such as Pereira, Dias, Silva, and Fonseca.

Should there be any doubt, I invite you to consult the Sri Lanka white pages. Type in Almeida, for the explorer that reached the island in 1505, and there are nineteen pages of listings. Fonseka, the local spelling of the Portuguese name, has two hundred. But try ‘Dias’, and surf through a mere one thousand and twenty-five pages–that’s a whole lotta love.

Two of the people on TV on Easter Sunday, one of them the telecommunications, digital infrastructure, and (bizarrely) foreign employment minister, were called Fernando—there are two thousand four-hundred sixteen pages of those!

For comparison, (de) Vries, the most common name in the Netherlands, has one entry—I tried Jaap, in case I was being unkind, and got Fernando J A A P. Now, that´s funny!

A Creole language remains on the island, full of Portuguese words. Just like Bahasa Indonesia, which has an astonishing three or four hundred Portuguese words, including keju for cheese—the Dutch couldn’t even get that one.

The Portuguese community in Sri Lanka are described as burghers, from the Dutch word, and kaffirs, the Islamic term for infidel or unbeliever.

This year, I leave you with this Easter song—the best way to fight the dark beings who lurk in the sewers of society is to confront them with their impotence. Monsters like you will never win, because no problem is ever solved by inflicting pain.

Bailar means to dance, and the songs to which the local people are dancing contain numerous Portuguese words. Over five centuries since a young Portuguese captain set foot in Taprobana, the happy faces of these Sri Lankan Catholics show the victory of love over hatred.

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


April 13, 2019

After strenuous denials about one week ago, which of course meant the diametrical opposite, Equador opened its er… door on Thursday and pushed Julian Assange out.

The founder of Wikileaks didn’t go willingly, but the Brits arrested him nonetheless and presented him to Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

The whole affair took on a farcical dimension when it emerged that Assange had violated embassy orders ‘to pay for his own health care and to clean up after his cat.’

In addition, Assange had been repeatedly warned to stop Wikileaks intercepting the president’s private messages, and had apparently failed to comply.

Refuge from extradition requests from Sweden and the US was granted in 2012 by Equador’s left-wing president, Rafael Correa, who granted the whistle-blower asylum in the country’s London embassy—an immediate thorn in the side of Equador’s relationship with the UK and US.

The fall in oil prices led to Moreno’s replacement by a more right-wing president—ironically called Lénin Moreno, literally the dusky Lenin.

Assange’s star rose briefly during the orang-u-tan campaign, when Trump publicly asked Wikileaks to reveal a set of Clinton emails. I confess that until this moment I was a Wikileaks virgin, but having spent the last fifteen minutes trawling the site, I can’t understand what the email fuss was about—all in all, pretty sophomoric stuff.

That was when the bizarre Australian should have negotiated a presidential pardon—it’s way too late now.

Equador needed the IMF, and the US pulls the strings on that front, so it was only a matter of time before the ‘stone in the president’s shoe’ was cast away.

The feline angle brought in the comedic element, and prompted my theory that the arch-leaker was shopped by his cat.

Details about one of the Amazon cloud data centers, sourced through Wikileaks.

Despite Assange’s predicament—extradition to the US followed by a show trial and a substantial period in prison—Wikileaks is going strong. Recent leaks include a list of Amazon cloud data centers.

Why is that interesting? Because allegedly Amazon works closely with the CIA and the US Department of Defense, partly because it’s one of the few organizations with appropriate security clearance. Contracts to develop cloud infrastructure are very substantial, and few beyond the IT community and the secret world know anything about Amazon’s alleged role in such matters.

One leaked document claims Amazon not only refuses to reveal the physical locations of its data centers, but obfuscates these further by using different names, such as Vandalay Industries, an obscure Seinfeld reference.

The partners page on Assange’s creation lists some of the most prestigious news organizations in the world, including Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and the New York Times.

Wikileaks appears to be itself under attack—a number of links to supposed CIA computer viruses are broken, simply reporting a ‘content encoding error.’ One such link describes AngelFire, an attack designed to infiltrate the Microsoft Windows operating system, using a sophisticated five-part package.

Just as the Guardian publishes the long read, this the long view. If you enjoy a good hack…

The message from the world’s great powers is clear: cyberwar is the new battleground—it’s a big boys’ game, played by Americans, Russians, and Chinese, with some help from the UK, North Korea, and Israel.

For the planet’s rulers, the cloud is the ultimate repository, containing top secret materials, details on the earth’s citizens—I’m not a quickfire conspiracy theorist, but I firmly believe we’re all there.

In a nutshell, ‘We know where you live.’

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


April 6, 2019

While Bitcoin came and went—oh, and just came again—the foundation for the cryptocurrency has steadily gained ground.

I’m talking about DLT, or Distributed Ledger Technology. If you want to take this seriously, and I believe you should, your starting point is the abstract of the original bitcoin paper by Satoshi Nakamoto—who has never been established to be an actual person.

You could read the full paper, or just skim the abstract below. It all depends how deep you want to dive.

A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution. Digital signatures provide part of the solution, but the main benefits are lost if a trusted third party is still required to prevent double-spending. We propose a solution to the double-spending problem using a peer-to-peer network. The network timestamps transactions by hashing them into an ongoing chain of hash-based proof-of-work, forming a record that cannot be changed without redoing the proof-of-work. The longest chain not only serves as proof of the sequence of events witnessed, but proof that it came from the largest pool of CPU power. As long as a majority of CPU power is controlled by nodes that are not cooperating to attack the network, they’ll generate the longest chain and outpace attackers. The network itself requires minimal structure. Messages are broadcast on a best effort basis, and nodes can leave and rejoin the network at will, accepting the longest proof-of-work chain as proof of what happened while they were gone.

I like concepts, and this one is neat. The wording is indigestible, and as far as I can ascertain, the paper was not peer-reviewed, and was not published in a reputable journal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea.

The financial side of it proposes a mechanism for avoiding double-spending and trusted third parties. At present, all the world powers are printing money digitally, well beyond what the economy can support in terms of tangible underlying value, and the only reason they get away with it is belief—the belief system is predicated on the ‘trusted third parties’, aka central banks.

Since all the central banks overprint money, whether they call it quantitative easing, LTRO, or Nellie the Elephant, the water level rises for all. The water is however infested with ever-expanding bubbles, and when these burst, the level suddenly falls—that’s when the ship runs aground and the rats go scurrying off.

So much for the trusted third parties—the lunatics are in charge of the asylum.

If you channel your transactions through the banks, one incentive is that there is a trust-based system you can depend on. When you buy or sell on eBay, you know that you can get your money back if the product is defective, or even if you change your mind—every major internet seller uses that business model—they have to, since the internet is inherently untrustworthy.

My favorite cartoon has gone through many morphs, but it’s still the best. In this version, the hound looks like he just got busted…

The financial part of the transaction is dealt with by Visa, Paypal, and others—the trusted third parties.

A peer-to-peer financial trust system would essentially dispense with central banks, but more importantly, the underlying ledger technology means that every currency unit could be traced back to when and where it was first mined. In other words, no money could be printed on an unsupported commodity—no gold, no coin.

The orange man is now pushing the Federal Reserve to go back to quantitative easing, knowing this will push the water level up—very handy for 2020, but the orange tide rises on trapped methane bubbles.

The chances for bitcoin to emerge as a potentate are slim—every major central bank hates it, and China imposed a blanket ban on cryptos in 2017.

Blockchain, however, is a different story.

Blockchain is serious business.

Some very large financial institutions are taking the whole thing seriously, and huge players like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and IBM are selling the picks and shovels. Although the focus of blockchain began with money. it’s now recognized that DLTs can play an important role in monitoring the supply chain.

If we use a coin-based example, that dollar bill, pound note, or euro coin in your pocket provides some information on provenance, but not much. Euros in coin form have country-specific markings—these markers can be used to understand mobility of Europeans.

But that bill in your purse has little traceability, apart from DNA markers. You may recall whether you got it from a friend, a store, or an ATM, but you can go no further—when it comes to digital, the same thing applies. The Starbucks barista who accepts a five dollar payment from your contactless card knows it came from you, but were those five bucks part of a paycheck or a split Uber fare? Who knows.

Blockchain changes that—your digital cash becomes granular, and you can search through any transaction to look at the origin of the money, right back to the time it was coined (or mined). As a consequence, you cannot ‘make’ money out of thin air.

What this really means is traceability. Let’s say you’re enjoying a dozen oysters in a seaside restaurant in the small French town of Arcachon. You naturally assume you’re eating local produce, but that oyster you are about to eat may well have started life in a hatchery in the Netherlands. From there, it might have been bagged for growout in Dungarvan, a small town in SE Ireland.

Why would that happen? Because oysters now suffer from the Herpes virus, and colder waters provide more resistance. At some point, a batch of mid-sized oysters may have been relayed to France, grown to market size, and served at your table.

Blockchain means that you have a trail telling you know exactly how the animal fared on its journey to you—where it grew up, and when. If you’re concerned about animal welfare (but not so concerned that you wouldn’t gobble the little guy up), you might also find out about how it lived. Were the waters clean, did it survive a red tide, was the oxygen suitable for an oyster to live comfortably…

Supermarkets, chocolate manufacturers, and many other businesses now see blockchain as a critical part of their strategy for managing the supply chain. Farmers who sell lettuce to Walmart now enter key data about each batch into a blockchain system. The distributor that warehouses the product logs environmental conditions of shipping: inside and outside truck temperature, transport time, stoppages, damaged packaging…

If the customer who takes the product off the shelf files a quality complaint, the seller can trace a particular lettuce back to the time it was first planted.

Of course when it comes to goods, you can’t cheat the mass balance. The quantity of steel is limited by that of its constituent ores, and the amount of lettuce is limited by the carbon, nitrogen, and other elements that are available to ‘manufacture’ it.

Money, on the other hand, violates the core principles of ecology—that’s partly why I loathe the use of the term ecosystem in a corporate or business context. ‘Corporate ecosystem’ is as great an oxymoron as ‘affordable legal costs’ or ‘plastic silverware’.

Blockchain provides the traceability to change that.

In a nutshell, it’s thermodynamics for economists.

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

%d bloggers like this: