Mare Clausum

January 2, 2023

In my first article this year, I’m sailing south into the closed sea of the Romans. I have no idea where I’ll end up—the only thing I’m sure of right now is the music that will accompany my text.

The Roman galleys, with their square sails and captive oarsmen, sailed west past the pillars of Gibraltar—they reached the port of Gades, named Agadir by the Phoenicians in 1100 B.C.

This is where my train of thought mimics life itself—the path is festooned with byways—hardly the ‘chartered course‘ of Paul Anka.

There is a classic quiz question about the first year of the century—any century.

It’s a double trick question: the year always precedes the century (e.g. the 19th century was the eighteen hundreds) and the answer always ends in ‘1’, i.e. 1801, 1901, 2001… because the very first century A.D. started on year 1.

Europe didn’t know about the zero until the Middle Ages—the zero was an Indian invention exported to Arabia, known to the Jews and Arabs of Iberia, and exploited by the magicians of The India Road in their conquest of the Mare Clausum and the maritime route to India.

In a way, the Portuguese closed the circle and returned the zero to Calicut.

It seems odd that the West understood 10, 20, 100, or 1000, but not zero—such is life. As a consequence of this arithnesia (first new word of the year, contracting arithmetic amnesia), the year before Year 1 AD was… Year 1 BC. There is no year zero. A further consequence was that there was no ‘zeroeth’ century, making the first century years 1-100, the second 101-200, and so on.

And here we are in the XX1st century, tentatively stepping into 2023—a species with a recorded history of six thousand years, still potty-training its way around a toxic mix of wars, pandemics, and artificial intelligence. Around us, our earth mother, exhausted by our antics, has decided it’s time for a little tough love.

The Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans reached Gades—modern-day Cadiz—and sailed on to the Algarve, then north to Lisbon, which the Greeks named Ulyssippo. There is a suggestion in the toponym that the great Ulysses of Homer’s Odyssey may be at the heart of the name, which the Romans later changed to Olisipo.

But the Romans never sailed south. The northeast trade winds blew them offshore, where they were as helpless as a child on a moonless night. Without the lateen sails of the Arabs, the galleys could not tack. Strictly speaking, the ancient navigators of the Mediterranean did sail south, they just couldn’t sail home again.

It took the Lusitanians to do that.

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

The Sticks

December 26, 2022

To all the children we once were…

Pammy liked to eat.

She liked the taste of food and the way some things were sweet and others salty, some were chompy and some just melted in your mouth.

But Pammy only ate nice food when she visited with Felisha—otherwise she was stuck with Uncle Stickman and his protein bars.

“Now Pammy,” Ronald would say. “Little children aren’t supposed to like food!”

“They most certainly are not!” Ronald’s mother repeated. “Pammy, food is just energy. It doesn’t matter what it tastes like. Ronald, give the child an energy bar.”

Pammy fought back a tear. “But other children get proper food,” she complained. “They get toast, and butter, and eggs and yummy chocolate, and and…” Her voice vanished as she saw her uncle and her grandmother frowning down at her.

Mr. Stickman was very tall, and thin as a rake. Pammy looked down at the black shoes, black socks, black trousers, and white shirt. As she looked up the shirt buttons, she could see the black suspenders on either side.  Above the starched white collar was a long horse face with ears that stuck out like magnets. A stringy black mustache was glued over the top lip and the narrow nose wound up to the black eyebrows. Above that, the forehead slid back into a dome circled by wispy black hair.

“Silly, silly silly girl,” Grandma Stickma said—she was also stick-thin, so everyone called her Stickma. Pammy looked at her knobbly knees and bumpy elbows, her thin lips and brown hair bun, her pointy tongue sticking out as she spoke.

“Butter makes you fat, eggs make you oily, and chocolate makes you sick,” Stickma crowed. In the corner, the black magpie squawked, making Pammy jump. “Now then, Ronald, go and change and let’s get our energy needs over and done with. Then we can all do something really fun.”

“Yes mother.” Ronald shuffled off and returned five minutes later, turned out in a black dressing gown and black slippers. The left slipper had a hole in the front and his big toe poked through. On his head was a black sleeping cap—it had greyish rabbit fur lining and a dirty white tassel on top.

The family sat in a line in front of the television, Pammy with her protein bar and power drink, and the two grown-ups with cold macaroni dumped out of a tin.

“No point heating it up, Ronald.”

“No, mother.”

“Waste of gas, mother,” he added.

“Yes, throwing good money out the window. Energy, you know—that’s all we need.” She spooned the macaroni mechanically into her mouth and masticated—Pammy thought she looked just like a macaroni eating machine.

“Look, mother, there’s a really good show about earthquakes.”

“Oh, what fun! Put it on, Ronnie, put it on.” Grandma Stickma shrieked with excitement.

In the corner, the magpie shrieked loudly.

“Now, child, eat that protein and fuel up. Sit up straight and learn about earthquakes. You lucky, lucky girl!”

Pammy nodded nicely, but in her head she thought, ‘You yucky, yucky show!

Only last century, the giant earthquake of Atlambistan leveled the entire town of Mehland,’ the narrator droned. ‘A tera-tremor, surpassed only by the Poljak eruption, which hurled a megaton of cinnabar into the upper atmosphere, flattening everything in its wake.’ On the screen, endless mountains appeared, accompanied by deep and sinister rumblings.

Pammy closed her eyes as she finished the energy bar. She gulped her pea extract and pumpkin seed shake—it tasted super-yucky, so she had to get it down fast—and pray it didn’t come back up.

She leaned forward like she was thrilled by the TV, and with her eyes screwed shut, she felt she was outside in the warm spring evening, going over the road to see her best friend Felisha.

Pammy loved to wander into the kitchen, where Felisha’s mom was always cooking something.

“Hello, Felisha Delisha!” Pammy giggled at the made-up name.

“Now, where did you get that from, girlfriend?” Felisha had both hands on her hips, imitating her mother. All she needed was the apron with flour stains and the rolling pin.

Pammy skipped inside the hall and saw Felisha’s dad Fowler watching baseball in the lounge. “Hi, Mr. Fowler.”

“Hey Pammy, want a cookie?”

“Yes please!” Pammy grabbed the brownie and followed her nose to the kitchen.

Sitting on a high stool was Felisha’s little brother. He stuck his finger in some yellow goo, then sucked and grinned. “Is it sweet, Felix?”

The little boy grinned at Pammy and nodded. “Mmm hmm.” He was about to dip again when Mama wagged a big finger at him. “Uh, uh, greedy grabs. You just wait ‘til it’s ready.”

“What are you making, Mrs. Friendly?”

Mama Friendly flashed her big, happy smile. “I’m just making my Felisha some flapjacks. How about you, Pammy, do you want a cinnamon jack?”

“Jack?  I don’t know what that is, but it sounds yummy! And if Felisha—”

“Jacks? Honey, they’re delisha!”

Pammy mouthed ‘Felisha Delisha’ at her friend and giggled.

“Baby girl”—Mrs. Friendly looked at her daughter—“You get Pammy a nice glass of milk and tell her all about flapjacks.”

As the two girls went off to the refrigerator, Mrs. Friendly tutted under her breath. ‘That mean old Grandma Stickma, she don’t deserve the little girl she has at home.’  

Pammy finished her flapjacks just as the earthquakes stopped crashing on TV. She peeked out at the Stick family and hoped they wouldn’t ask her any questions about the show. She smiled, thinking of Mrs. Friendly and her Friendly family who loved delicious food.

“What did you think of this marvelous show, Pamela?” Stickma enquired. She liked to use an important tone when she discussed such important events.

“I thought it was absolutely marvelous, Grandma,” Pammy mimicked—she could hardly remember a thing, she’d been in that wonderful kitchen across the street munching on delicious treats.

“Splendid. You see, Ronald, no time wasted on such stupidities as food, so much better to feed the soul with maaarvelous culture.”

“Yes, mother. Splendid meal for the mind.”

“Uncle Stick,” Pammy said brightly. “Which bit did you like the best?”

Mr. Stickman was rather caught out, since he’d fallen asleep half-way through the Richter rumblings. “Oh, oh, I thoroughly enjoyed it all. I-I never knew tremors could have such a profound effect,” he mumbled. “on-on er…  the earth. Yes, er… that’s right.”

“Very clever, dear,” Stickma said acidly. “And what about you, young lady?” What did you learn?”

“Oh,” Pammy said. “I learned so much! I worked up the biggest appetite! First, I wanted the lambistan, but my favorite was the cinnabar flatjak.”

Stick and Stickma turned to her with a puzzled expression, but Pammy was already running off to bed.

The next day, Stickma would go for her health check-up at the obesity clinic—she was worried she might be getting fat—and Pammy would go to  Felisha’s house straight after school.

Yummy, yummy,’ she thought, as she tucked under the blankets. ‘Tomorrow’s going to be delisha!”   

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


December 18, 2022

I am sitting in the gardens next to the beach at a hotel in Mombasa. There is a consistent northeast monsoon—exactly the wind Vasco da Gama wanted when he came back from Calicut.

It’s early December, and all around the scenery is constantly shifting.

Next to me, a guy is half-way up a coconut palm. He holds a machete and his feet are bound together with rope so he can climb the tree without exertion; when he reaches the lower fronds he slashes furiously and the fruit hit the grass like mortar rounds.

As I sip the coconut water, I watch a camel sauntering across the sand, then hordes of little children splashing and shouting in the surf. A dhow sails in and drops anchor.

The dhow owned the Indian Ocean before Vasco da Gama’s fleet arrived. Because of its design limitations, Arab exploration stopped well short of the southern part of Africa.

The unfailing NE monsoon, powerful without being overwhelming, continues as steady as ever. I close my eyes and see Gama’s three ships come in—the São Rafael, São Gabriel, and the smaller Bérrio. They anchor beyond the reef, and from the flagship Vasco da Gama and his bearded adventurers contemplate the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and a never-ending strip of palm-fringed sand.

By this time it was early spring, and the monsoon winds were reversed, blowing steadily from the southwest—it was as if Africa was pushing the fleet of the Perfect Prince across the ocean to fulfil the dream of the late king, who had died two years earlier, poisoned at the age of forty by his English wife.

Gama’s instructions were clear—he was to take on a pilot to guide the fleet across the ocean. The Portuguese sailed north until they came to the town of Malindi. Here, after avoiding a treacherous attempt by the local sultan to run the ships aground, the captain-general contracted a Gujarati pilot who guided the fleet to Calicut.

The pillar built by Vasco da Gama to commemorate his arrival in Malindi.

It was the start of Portugal’s eastern adventure—an epic period of about one hundred and fifty years that took the small nation to the very edge of the world, while Spain was busy discovering Japan.

The return winds that bring a ship back to the African shores from the Indies only start in November—before that the wind is weak and variable—as the sinister Álvaro would say, ‘like an old man’s piss.’

But Vasco da Gama had no choice—it was either that or death at the hands of the Arabs, who’d recognized the Portuguese armada for what it was—a trading mission at the point of a musket.

Gama sailed and spent three months adrift in the becalmed sea until the monsoon finally came.

By the time they made landfall in Malindi, half the crew was dead from scurvy.

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

The Demo Variant

December 4, 2022

In 2010, the Rockefeller Foundation published a report called ‘Scenarios for future of technology and international development.’

It explored four scenarios, including one called LOCK STEP: A world of tighter top-down government control and more authoritarian leadership, with limited innovation and growing citizen pushback.

The description begins like this.

In 2012, the pandemic that the world had been anticipating for years finally hit.

…even the most pandemic-prepared nations were quickly overwhelmed when the virus streaked around the world, infecting nearly 20% of the world’s population and killing eight million in just seven months, the majority of them healthy young adults.

The report became a conspiracy theorist’s dream—a world where governments curtail the rights of citizens by using a pandemic pretext.

Of course, the conspiracy monkeys suck the marrow, casting aside bone, meat, and veg. Never mind that these are scenarios, that there are four of them, and that 20% of the world’s population (a mere 1.6 billion today) is about half of the number infected, according to CIDRAP.

Or that the death toll is half of the lock step scenario.

In the West, government strategy has been prudent but not authoritarian. Faced with a critical public health emergency, many governments did the best they could. With the exception of the orangeman, Boris the scarecrow, and Brazil’s tropical trump, all now busy marching around their little back gardens rather than playing dicktator, the game plan was simple.

Keep folks away from each other to stop them dying, make sure people got vaccinated as soon as possible, ease up on lockdowns and masks as hospitals recovered and death tolls subsided. Many mistakes were made along the way because, as more than one pol put it, ‘we’re flying the plane as we build it.’

And then governments began to abolish Covid—I first saw it in Denmark last February.

Travel is booming and all the world accepts that Covid will remain with us—folks are vaccinated, many have caught the disease twice and three times without major consequences, and herd immunity is a now a reality.

All the world…

Except China.

The great leader set the policy, predicated on zero Covid—a kind of viral five-year plan—featuring massive lockdowns, testing, and infection control.

While the rest of the world caught Covid, China did not—but while you can control the ideology and the internet, viral infection is a little more difficult.

The Middle Kingdom has 5229 reported Covid deaths, resulting from a reported 1.5 million infections out of a population of 1.4 billion. The infection rate is one per thousand inhabitants, and the death rate is 3 per million.

Elsewhere, in the UK ninety percent of the population has had Covid at least once and the death rate is 2400 per million.

The issue here is the law of large numbers—in the UK, that means one hundred thousand fatalities, but in China the equivalent is three million dead. Because the US followed (poorly) the Western approach, one million died—large numbers are a killer.

So, China kept its fatality rate low, but after a successful nationwide vax plan, it should be able to release its citizens back into the wild, as epidemiologists say, and expect widespread contagion and minimal death—the recipe for opening up.

Instead, it mandated isolation without explanation, as only a dictatorship can do—perhaps because in a communist country, central planning is by definition entrenched, but also maybe due to the lower efficacy of the Chinese vaccines in preventing death.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US Covid Czar, is on record that Sinovac and other offerings based on the inactivated virus are considerably less effective than Western mRNA vaccines.

At the same time, Xi Jin Ping declared that zero Covid was China’s containment policy and that it would save the Chinese from the predicament that befell the USA. In doing so, he turned a public health policy into a political paradox of the highest order, worthy of the conundrums facing a chess grand master.

  • If there is no Covid (zero) people won’t take the vaccine;
  • If people are unvaccinated in substantial numbers they will die;
  • If lockdowns end and vaccinated people die, the vaccine is no good;
  • If China accepts Western vax it tacitly admits its product is crap.

The Chinese government made serious mistakes, both in politics and public health, and from blank sheets of paper to massive unrest, China is pushing back.

Free speech. Elections. Choice.

These simple things that the West takes for granted, forfeiting the vote for a day at the beach, are more precious than life itself—they are the lifeblood of a successful society.

Wouldn’t it be nice if after inventing the Coronavirus, China invented the democracy virus?

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

The Lead Balloon

November 26, 2022

It all began on election night.

The orange man publicly announced er… an announcement.

Predicting election results is a mug’s game, so it was thoroughly in character for the orangutan to let his cultists know, sandwiched in smirks, that there would be a big announcement the following Tuesday.

However, American voters did the unthinkable—they returned the US Senate to the Democratic Party, and almost did the same with the House of Representatives. Governors? the balance shifted from 28 (GOP) – 22 to a more even 26 – 24.

In a characteristic confirmation of unsound judgement, Trump told the nation on Tuesday, November 15th, that he would run for president in 2024. He didn’t do this with clipped, professional delivery but by launching on an endless rant worthy of your cantankerous uncle who specializes in ruining everyone’s Thanksgiving.

The Democrats didn’t say much—when you have a guy in a hole with a spade, digging furiously, why interrupt?

The Grand Old Party, however, was none too pleased with the electoral outcome—not only was the Senate lost, but the candidates that helped lose it were in some cases Trump-endorsed choices. Even before the mid-terms, the orange man came out and said he should ‘get all the credit’ for wins and ‘not be blamed at all’ for losses.

Again, this is a predictable position for a man who never took blame for anything. Not the way Russian aggression escalated, not the pointless antics with the Korean mini-nuke, not the pandemic response and mass deaths, zilch!

The orang-u-tan is part of a political class that doesn’t apologize—sorry is not part of the vocabulary. This is an elite club that has an exclusive membership, including Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro.

A very young Elton John explains why politicians don’t apologize.

I struggle with people who can’t say sorry—since it’s a straightforward observation that everyone makes mistakes or gets things wrong at some time or other, then clearly politicians also do.

I find it pathetic to be unable or unwilling to apologize for behavior that misleads, hurts, or injures others, and even worse to start off by saying ‘Even though you can’t swim, I’m going to throw you in the deep end. If you survive, I’ll take the credit, if you drown you can’t possibly blame me.’

At least four Trump-endorsed Senate candidates: Oz, Bolduc, Levy, and Malloy couldn’t swim. In the House, the number was double—eight drowned. In the gubernatorial race, nine candidates sank without a trace—now that’s a whole lot not to take blame for.

The change to abortion rights is one of the factors you can blame for the Republican debacle, and there you can lay the blame squarely at the feet of new Trump-appointed judges like Amy Coney Barrett—whose appointment Trump evidently can’t be blamed for.

In passing, it’s ironic that a segment of the Republican party is so insistent about banning abortion in the U.S. Since lower-income families are more in need of local options to terminate a pregnancy, and presumably would have more challenges bringing up kids (Coney-Barrett has seven), then surely keeping abortion legal would reduce the expansion of the immigrant vote.

Over the next two years (well, one and a bit, really), the GOP has a lot to think about. Many within the party cannot countenance a Trump run—though a segment of the American public still adores him, for reasons I can’t work out.

Republican pols know very well he is a demagogue, but more importantly, they now know he’s a demagogue who cannot lead them back to power—even though he can lose them their seats.

In this crazy game of politics, with its incredibly serious consequences, the needle of the backstreet abortionist punctured the orange Trump balloon and the mid-terms watched it zigzag madly through the air, whistling its demise.

Like an ageing boxer too punch-drunk to see straight, the man doesn’t know when he’s beat.

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

The Climes They Are-A-Changing

November 12, 2022

I gave a seminar this week for one hundred and fifty high school students.

I began by telling them I’d never spoken in a conference hall with signs announcing it was forbidden to jump—they didn’t find it amusing—perhaps all their classrooms are jumpless.

Their teacher apologized for the restlessness of the students, but actually they were very good—no one jumped and everyone listened.

I told them I accepted the invitation because they are the future, and then apologized for the appalling performance of my generation in addressing climate change—in many cases even accepting it.

When you type ‘is climate change’ into Google, the first suggestion reads ‘is climate change real’.

I tried ‘is the pope’ and ‘does the bear’, but instead of ‘is the pope Catholic, does the bear shit in the woods?’ I read ‘does the bearing straight freeze over’.

I can address that sans click.

The bearing straight does not, but the Bering Strait freezes a lot less that it used to.

Climate change isn’t on the curriculum of the 15-17 year-old science students I addressed. In the US, it is also not part of the program in many high schools.

The problem begins there—if a formal education isn’t provided, there’s a highway of hype waiting to be explored.

Why is the issue of climate change so intractable?

It’s non-linear, but in a rather subtle way. We struggle greatly with anything but gradual change.

The climate has changed dramatically over geological time—two billion years ago, in the pre-Cambrian, the Grand Canyon was underwater. sixty-five million years ago, dinosaurs vanished from the earth. So what’s the big deal?

That is! After the dinos, it took millions of years for hominids to emerge, and now we’re here, but for how long?

Climate change isn’t a big deal for the planet, it’s a big deal for humans. If the world gets too uncomfortable for us, we will disappear. How will that happen?

It’s clearly happening already—droughts, floods, messed up seasons, and rising water levels are all symptoms of this disease.

If we follow the Gaia hypothesis put forward by the late James Lovelock, the planet is fighting back. It’s as if Earth recognizes the root causes of the disorder, i.e. humans, and is therefore making it very uncomfortable for the offenders—food shortages, environmental catastrophes, and mass migrations are some of the weapons in its arsenal.

We get confused about climate and weather—humans are short-term thinkers, and because a gradual change in the climate leads to extreme shifts in weather, the signal gets eclipsed by the noise. Noise has a random component, and the weather effects are extreme—it’s perfectly possible to have an abnormally cold winter or a cooler summer although the planet is warming.

A sea level rise of three feet is enough to make most of Miami Beach disappear.

The next fallacy accepts that the climate is changing, but refuses to admit that human activities are the cause—despite the fact that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is the highest ever. You can’t measure atmospheric CO2 from 100,000 years ago—at least not directly—but scientists take Antarctic ice cores that are hundreds of feet long and measure the concentration of deuterium, which is a good proxy for CO2.

The real question, once we dispense with the dross, is ‘What are we prepared to do about climate change?’

Note that I’m not asking what we can do. We have an old mind for an old world, and cannot deal with global issues, especially if it means foregoing our quotidian comforts.

When gas prices go up, do you hear any cheering for less car journeys and lower greenhouse gas emissions?

How many humans would put up with a two-hour daily electricity cut so we can save energy?

The exact same considerations apply to air travel, beef consumption, and other potential pathways for mitigation.

Humans act short-term, which is how politicians win elections—no ‘good’ politician is up for a plan that only works in the medium term, long after he’s voted out for inconveniencing our daily life. The planet, on the other hand, acts long-term.

Earth’s reaction will be profound, lasting, tragic, and unforgiving.

Good job we won’t be around to see it.

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

For Ladies Only

November 5, 2022

Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, fell in 1979. His successor, the hard-line Islamic cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, set the scene for the Iran of today—by any yardstick, a miserable place for a woman to grow up.

When the radical Shia took power, they imprisoned a BBC correspondent who was accused of spying for MI6. When the journalist was finally released from the Tehran prison, he told reporters at Heathrow about his ordeal.

“Anyone who has spent time in a British public school or served in the British Army can never feel totally out of place in a third world prison.”

Since I spent a couple of years in one of those cherished British institutions, I have to agree.

During my time there, I knew a handful of Persian kids—obviously pro-regime, children from wealthy families that were clearly supporters of the Shah.

I then witnessed the regime change and the taking of the US embassy—at the time, there continued to be an intake of Persian (now Iranian) kids to US universities. One night I came out of a bar to see a brand new BMW flipped on its roof—some American kids had upturned the car in revenge for the hostage taking.

The vehicle belonged to a wealthy Persian student—the following weekend he bought another one.

Through the decades, the Islamic regime has brutally enforced its stranglehold on the nation, exorcising any semblance of freedom and plunging society back into the dark ages.

The youngsters who once shouted death to the Shah have reaped the fruits of their toil—students as I was then, who are now fathers and mothers, possibly grandparents.

Islam is not kind to women, no matter what the narrative is.

Steppenwolf are now almost unknown, but I highly recommend them—one of the classic bands of the late 1960s.

Step by step, Iranian governments have consigned increasingly draconian measures into law.

The Islamic Republic initially set the age of marriage for ‘women’ to an eye-watering nine years, reducing it from fifteen, which had been approved in Article 23 of the 1974 Family Protection Act. In 2002, parliament raised the age to thirteen.

However, special circumstances put forward by the father or paternal grandfather can reduce this age. Furthermore, in what seems cynical to say the least, the definition of one year shifted from solar (365 days) to lunar—twelve lunations, each lasting twenty-nine and a half days, i.e. 354 days. By gaining 11 days over 12 years, girls can be married off a few months earlier.

After a girl gets married, trouble starts in earnest. If she wanted to get divorced, Sharia law required her to go before a judge to present her case—now she can get a divorce if her husband is imprisoned for over five years, mentally ill, physically abusive, or a drug addict.

How about a guy? He just has to decide to walk away, no reason required.

Article 1133 of the Civil Code: “A man can divorce his wife whenever he wishes to do so.”

When the couple do separate, the woman has custody of the kids until their seventh birthday, at which point custody goes to the father. However, if the woman remarries, she automatically loses custody—even if her ex is dead.

But of course there’s many a happy marriage (or even an unhappy one) that ends only with the death of a spouse—and there also the widow gets the short straw: she is entitled only to an eighth of the husband’s possessions.

Guys? When they are widowed… you guessed it, they get all the dosh.

Is this all wrong? Of course. What could be done? Many things, but not in a radical Islamic state. Put another way…

Philosophy poses questions that have no answer, religion provides answers that cannot be questioned.

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

Where Are You Now?

October 30, 2022

The bunker is dank, the cement walls harsh and forbidding. The entrance is down a flight of steps that doesn’t seem deep enough to protect us from the MK82 and M117 bombs dropped by the B-52, aka BUFF—Big Ugly Fat Fuckers.

“Forty people can take shelter here,” the lady says—I’ve wangled a private tour of the bunker where Joan Baez hid on Christmas Eve, 1972, as the bombers flew overhead. In a small room, my guide turns on a tape—sirens moan and children cry, a piano tinkles in the background. A Vietnamese voice tells everyone to put on their helmets.

“…that the most sacred of Christmas prayers was shattered by the bombs,” Baez recites, before breaking into song. Where Are You Now My Son? she asks, singing of a Vietnamese woman whose boy lies buried beneath the rubble.

The setting is the famous Hotel Metropole in Hà Nội—Vietnamese is a tonal language, like Cantonese and Thai, but like Bahasa it uses the Roman alphabet. That means the tonal vowels are represented by diacritical marks—a single vowel can have two different accents, one related to the vowel itself, which counts as a different letter, and one for the tone.

The hotel hosted the likes of Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene—I reread The Quiet American, a much more powerful experience in Vietnam—more recently, the Metropole hosted the 2019 summit between micronuke and the orangutan.

I remember the Vietnam War surprisingly well—partly because I listened to shortwave broadcasts from Radio Hanoi—but the Vietnam War Remnants Museum quickly showed me how little I knew.

A massive Chinook graces the courtyard of the museum. My first thought was how well kept the chopper is, despite the tropical weather—a tribute to Boeing manufacturing.

The courtyard is full of American hardware—a Huey, an F-4 Phantom, a Skyraider, and the enormous Chinook. There’s a conspicuous absence of Vietcong materiel, although they had Russian MiGs and SAMs aplenty. I didn’t realize the US was dragged into the war by the French, first as arms suppliers and advisers, and then as actual troops.

Air force general Curtis Lemay, who I’d read about in the biography of Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell, had some choice words to say about the enemy.

They’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.

The war museum omits any mention of Vietcong atrocities—truth is the first casualty of war. But it shows some impressive images, and equally impressive numbers—the US dropped five million tonnes of bombs during World War II, but almost triple that in Vietnam—over fourteen million, living up to Lemay’s dictum. The cost of the war was six hundred and eighty billion dollars, double the second world war, and had about one third of the casualties, but only an eight of the deaths—this attests to the fact that it was an air war.

One of the key weapons of the North Vietnamese was art. Many posters, some of which rich in both humor and irony, told the story of American invasion.

Air wars are convenient but unwinnable, as was found by the Luftwaffe in England, the Americans in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and now the Russians in the Ukraine. Inevitably, there are boots laid on the ground, and that’s when the body bags pile up.

One of the most interesting aspects of the war were the correspondents—many died, the most famous perhaps being Robert Capa, but the one that impressed me most was the Englishman Larry Burrows, who photographed for Life Magazine.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a tribute to The Killer, one of the fathers of Rock n’ Roll—I bet Great Balls of Fire was heard often in ‘Nam. That said, I found no evidence, but I did spot this.

Burrows left behind the most courageous quote of the war.

“I will do what is required to show what is happening. I have a sense of the ultimate-death. And sometimes I must say, ‘To hell with that.'”

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

Arabs and Harrods

October 25, 2022

I’m sitting at a departure gate in Qatar at two in the morning. Around me are a multitude of Vietnamese, yakking excitedly.

Whenever I go through Doha, it’s always the middle of the night, but the airport is a gigantic, pulsing, sleepless place.

Like most of the Gulf states, the engine that moves Qatar is immigration—this is where the poor of Asia come to work, whether it’s building football stadiums or checking boarding passes.

The lines above were written just before I got on a plane—one week ago—and I’m picking up again in Saigon.

Every fishing village has a temple to protect the men who go out to sea—across the water it’s called the Nan Hai, or South China Sea, but you’d get into a lot of trouble calling it that here.

It’s the rainy season, and last night the skies opened, as if Buddha himself drew the curtains to let the bolts of lightning strike. I sat in a restaurant on the Mekong, watching the water hyacinth drift by in clumps and mounds as thunder crashed all around. The ceiling above was corrugated zinc and I wondered just how good a lightning conductor separated me from a charcoal grill.

Vietnam is very different from its neighbors—people here are very focused and it took me just a day to understand why so many products are Made in Vietnam—yesterday I went into an office at midday and found it completely empty, only to discover the place was almost full but the workers were snatching a post-lunch snooze under their desks.

Although the official name is Ho Chi Minh city, everyone sees it as Saì Gòn. As soon as you get into town, you know you’re somewhere special.

Scooters have a dedicated lane where they ride six abreast, but occasionally the cement walls part and a swarm of Vespa clones descends on you from a cross-street.

A few tunes from Vietnam’s Bob Dylan, Trinh Cong Son. Unlike his erstwhile namesake, this Bob Son does not have ‘a voice like sand and glue.’

Saigon has a well-deserved fun-town reputation going right back to the French days and it certainly catered to US servicemen during the Vietnam War—when the GIs weren’t migrating to Bangkok R&R in Soi Cowboy.

I was told by a friend that the Vietnamese were unassuming, friendly people, small in stature and big in heart. But it is worth remembering they defeated both the Chinese and the Americans.

“And don’t forget the French,” I said.

She smiled. “Oh, even the English managed that!”

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

Snake Eyes

October 9, 2022

In 1977, a Polish immigrant called Zbigniew Brzezinski became President Carter’s National Security Adviser.

Zbig, as he was known in the US, was a diplomat’s son—Thadeusz Brzeziński was posted to Germany in 1931, and three year old Zbig spent the next four years in a country that was undergoing intense nazification.

But the actions of Stalin’s Soviet Union and its ruthless occupation of Eastern Europe were the formative drivers of Brzezinski’s ideology—the boy grew into a man possessed of a deep hatred of communism.

When Brzezinski joined the US government, he set out on a mission to dismember the USSR. His first move was to set up the Nationalities Working Group, dedicated to inflaming ethnic tensions, particularly in Islamic nations—the Soviet Union had six such ‘stans’: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Along the way, he added one more ‘stan’—a nation that is synonymous with violence, oppression, and terror.

In the late seventies, Afghanistan was doing well—it was self-sufficient in food and showed promise politically—the troubled nation was heading for democracy. Enter Brzezinski. The Polish russophobe convinced the peanut farmer turned president to pile weapons into Afghanistan, destabilizing the USSR’s southern border.

Zbig was busy laying a trap—if he could get the Russians to fight in Afghanistan, his aim was to mire them in an endless war. As the Soviet Union saw increasing evidence of threats to their territorial stability, Brezhnev ordered the Red Army to invade.

Let me know if anything sounds familiar.

Not a weapon from the Afghan war, but a vintage vibrator from 1908 used to cure depression in ladies—the tool, if you excuse the pun, is on display at a Venetian restaurant east of the Piazza San Marco—this picture honors a promise made in an earlier article, Diletto‘.

On Christmas Day 1979, the USSR invaded its southern neighbor—the Russians stayed for a decade, during which the US and Saudi Arabia systematically increased their aid to the mujahiddin.

Perhaps the major game changer was the shoulder-fired Stinger missile—the toll it took on the Soviet MI-24 ‘Hind’ helicopter gunships is one of the legends of the war.

The effect of the Afghan war on the Soviet economy was earth-shattering.

The war ended in February 1989, and by early November the Berlin Wall had fallen.

Two years later the Soviet Union imploded.

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s trap was complete, although the man in charge back home was now Ronald Reagan.

Fast forward to early 2022—once again, Russia feels compelled to attack one of its neighbors, but this time it cannot conquer the country. Instead, the war becomes an orgy of sophisticated weaponry, and the Ukrainians bite the bear’s ankles and calves—now they’re dangerously close to the thighs.

Although I tend to take conspiracy theories—and especially conspiracy theorists—with an extremely large pinch of salt, I can’t help wondering if we’re watching a re-run of the same movie, and if we are…

Who wrote the script?

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

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