Under the Influence

April 4, 2020

ab occulta coeli influential

The Latin words loosely translate as ‘the secrets of heavenly influence’, and the phrase has been around for centuries—at least since the days of Vasco da Gama and Columbus.

In this year of tragedy, folks often say they’ve never seen anything like this before—I’m talking about Americans, Europeans… You certainly won’t hear that from people in Hong Kong, Liberia, or Sierra Leone.

Westerners born between 1928 and 1945—the so-called Silent Generation—do remember similar measures because of World War II. In particular, they are familiar with confinement and food restrictions, albeit for different reasons.

But to most of the Western World, pandemics were a thing of the past—or like child sex, something you only find in a distant land—Southeast Asia, or Sub-Saharan Africa.

There’s no good reason for imagining the West would be pandemic-free—not now, not ever. You don’t need to get morbid about it—after all, we all know we’re going to die, and it’s sensible to reflect on that periodically and plan, rather than mope—you need to be aware.

In practical terms, that means two things: (i) an understanding that science and technology—not religious mumbo-jumbo or trusting your gut—are what make modern human society so successful; and (ii) holding politicians’ feet to the fire—if needed, chucking the cretins themselves into the flames—when they refuse to provide strategic direction rather than reactive bullshit.

But there’s one more thing folks need to do—yes, it’s the usual suspect—learn the lessons of history.

Tommasino de Bianchi wrote this account of the first documented flu pandemic.

Item […] in questo dì 13 lujo in sabato […] non ge reman de polastri in piaza, tuti o la mazor parte son comprati per amalati che son in Modena de una malatia che dura 5 dì con una gran febra, e doglia de testa, e poi se levano e non pare che siano quelli, ma ge reman una tosse teribile che ge dura forse 8 dì et poi se vano liberande a pocho a pocho e de le 10 caxade le 8 ge n’è de amalati et in tal taxe son tuti per tera, e nesuno non perisse

An article in The Lancet translates part of this chronicle as “On this day…in Modena there appeared an illness that lasts three days with a great fever and headache, and then they rise…but there remains a terrible cough that lasts maybe eight days, and then little by little they recover and do not perish.”

Influenza timeline published in 2010 to mark five centuries of flu pandemics. Dr. Anthony Fauci is a co-author of this viewpoint article.

Except they did perish, although not in large numbers. Before this pandemic, scattered historical records exist of a flu outbreak in the mid-XIIIth century, six in the XIVth century, and four in the 1400s, but the 1510 pandemic caused a paradigm shift—by 1546, there was a theory of infectious diseases, although the world had to wait three centuries until Koch and Pasteur to know what the vectors actually were.

The 1510 flu pandemic can be traced to travel between North Africa and Sicily, but is thought to have originated in Asia—by the early XVIth century, the Portuguese had opened the trade routes to the orient, Castile had done the same for the Americas, and the slave trade from Africa had taken hold. It caught Europe at a pincer moment—a continent still severely depopulated after the Black Death and now plagued by a new disease called syphilis, freshly arrived from America.

From Sicily, the flu spread north to cities like Modena, home of the Cantino planisphere. Through July and August, as the epidemic raced through Europe, it took on new names: coqueluche, poppy, tussis quinta

By the time the pandemics of 1557 and 1580 had occurred, a trend could be seen, as described by Dr. Fauci and his colleagues.

influenza came to be recognized as a distinct disease with consistent clinical features… …its epidemiologic features were understood to include explosive spread with high attack rates and directional movement along travel or trade routes, prevalence in a town or city for no more than 4–6 weeks, appearance at unpredictable intervals and at any time of year

Sound familiar?

These pandemics typically showed low to moderate mortality rates. The table below, condensed from Wikipedia, shows those rates for a range of different diseases.

Case Fatality Rates (CFR) for a selection of different infectious diseases.

Disease Treatment CFR
Ebola virus disease Untreated & Unvaccinated 83–90%
AIDS/HIV infection Untreated 80–90%
Anthrax Untreated & Unvaccinated > 85%
Influenza A virus H5N1 ~ 60%
Bubonic plague Untreated & Unvaccinated 5–60%
Tetanus, Generalized Untreated & Unvaccinated 0.5
MERS 0.35
Smallpox, Variola major Unvaccinated 0.3
Typhoid fever Untreated & Unvaccinated 10–20%
SARS 0.11
1918 (Spanish) flu Treated > 2.5%
Mumps encephalitis Unvaccinated ~ 1%
Malaria ~ 0.3%
Hepatitis A Unvaccinated 0.1–0.3%
Asian (1956–58) flu ~ 0.1%
Influenza A, pandemics < 0.1%
Varicella (chickenpox) Unvaccinated 0.0002

Coronavirus was included, with a quoted fatality rate of ~5.39%, which I don’t believe. First, it makes no sense to use ~ (about) and then quote a number accurate to two decimal places, particularly when no other number is reported with that level of precision, and second, the data now emerging from the nations that test properly, such as Germany and South Korea, put the death rate at perhaps 1-2% of CFR. Countries reporting higher death rates, such as the United Kingdom (10.3%), Brazil (4.2%), and the United States (2.7%) simply aren’t testing enough.

A major step in the history of influenza was the realization that it was also a disease of other mammals and of birds. Scientists have been aware since the late XIXth century of the link between avian and human influenza—for over one hundred years, we’ve known that this virus can jump.

History repeats itself, and we fail to learn from it at our peril.

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

Murder Most Foul

March 28, 2020

Last week I told you we need music at this time, so today I’m going down that road.

Yesterday Bob Dylan released a new song called ‘Murder Most Foul.’

What’s it about? The seventy-nine year old Nobel Laureate would reply, “Oh, it’s about seventeen minutes,” and flash his ironic iconic smin—that’s a cross between a smirk and a grin.

The analysts, of which I am one, were quick to point out that it’s his longest song ever. It bests tunes such as A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Gates of Eden, It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), or Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.

When you listen to Murder Most Foul, you realize it has little pretence of a tune—in essence it’s a poem recited to some background piano lines, vaguely drifting along the standard blues theme, with a drumbeat coloring the mix here and there.

I closed my eyes yesterday lunchtime in the bright sunshine of early spring, buds in my ears to shut off extraneous sounds, and let my mind wander through seventeen minutes of poetry—it was like a journey through my life.

No one is exactly sure when this was recorded, since Dylan has put out nothing for eight years, and this release—along with eight other songs—was accompanied by a cryptic tweet:

Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.

I would interpret the last sentence in light of coronavirus, and perhaps ‘observant’ as keeping a watchful eye on politicians—you know who you are.

After all, this is the man who wrote:

Come senators, Congressmen, please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he who gets hurt, will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’Il soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

and who told us in ‘It’s Alright Ma’ that Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.

Only Dylan is able to give us a poem of rambling coherence, starting with the shooting of JFK and ending with darkness and death, and in those seventeen minutes—enough for almost six songs back in the days of the three-minute single—cover the gamut of American popular music, with a few Brit names thrown in for good measure.

While Dylan goes full circle round the events of Dealey Plaza, he takes us from Gone With The Wind to Charlie Parker, with references to heroin and the famous blues crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which I was fortunate enough to visit this time last year.

On the way he crosses the Mersey, chats to Pete Townshend, speaks with Benny Siegel, the legendary (and crazy, i.e. ‘bugsy’—but not to his face if you valued yours) Jewish gangster, and touches down in Love Field, Dallas, where Texan Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president at 2:38 pm on Friday, 22nd November 1963.

When I sent the link to a friend yesterday she thought Trump had been shot, a reminder of the difficult times we are traveling now. Bill Gates, who probably knows more about medicine than quite a few medical professionals, was on CNN a couple of days ago talking about the partial shutdown and partial reopening—once again, the emphasis is on the economy rather than public health, and the price will be huge.

Folks don’t realize that the orang-u-tan will do what he does best, since he’s an expert in reactive ‘management’. No one in their right mind will pack churches at Easter, and the ecclesiastical authorities should be the first to firmly address the faithful on that subject—for Catholics, that means the pope, for the multitude of other US flavors of Christianity, it means homegrown church leaders, many of whom are too beholden to party politics to stand up and be counted.

When asked about US states with two hundred cases, Gates mentions an infection rate of thirty-three percent per day. A very simple model projects that to half a million cases inside a month—go do it in Excel.

Now factor in a 3.4% mortality rate, according to World Health Organization estimates—total infection halves, but at a cost—thirty-six thousand dead. Fascinating numbers. Then review this analysis in The Lancet, which discusses the uncertainty of the CFR, or Case Fatality Rate, estimates, and plug in 0.99%.

Oh, before you do that, understand, as Gates does, that growth is exponential, so rounding up to 1% makes a big difference. Here are the numbers, crunched for you on a beautiful sunny Saturday, when hospitals all over Spain are at breaking point, and the only music you hear in the packed corridors is the chorus of a dry cough.

The numbers tell a story: 0.99% gives you over four hundred thousand infected in a month, and seventeen thousand deaths. That tiny 0.01% change? After thirty days it’s an extra one thousand cases.

So we’re all sorcerers’ apprentices now, and we should definitely take this a lot more seriously than the president of the United States is doing. Except of course he will explain to everyone when things go tits up that he never said anything like this at all, shout down a few reporters and claim fake news, and come out squeaky clean, inheriting the mantle of Teflon Don from the late John Gotti.

Customer in a hazmat suit at a European supermarket. I spent some time stalking him through the aisles in search of the ideal snap.

But my reflections today are about music, so let me spend the last couple of lines on the one name that Dylan mentions almost as much as Kennedy. I’m talking about the Wolf, Wolfman, Wolfman Jack.

I first came across him in the cult movie American Graffiti, a must for any fan of rock ‘n roll. He’s the guy with the gravelly voice who plays, well, himself as DJ of the new music sweeping the world in the nineteen sixties.

His emblematic style (‘lay your hands on the radio and squeeze my knobs’) and fabulous music choices made him a favorite all over the US, and artists like Jim Morrison, Leon Russell, and Freddie King wrote him into their songs.

So take your seventeen minutes of quarantine, close your eyes, open your mind, and enjoy the sunshine.

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

The Black Death

March 22, 2020

Last week, the ISIS newsletter al-Naba had a gem for its readers.

The healthy should not enter the land of the epidemic and the afflicted should not exit from it.

This was taken to mean that terrorists should not travel into Europe or other parts of the West where the current flavor of coronavirus is flourishing—it led to a rash of commentary in Western, Indian, and Arab media.

Most of those comments were er… rash, and this week’s edition of the terrorist organization’s newsletter dispels any comfort that it has no plans for renewed attacks in Europe.

And they must have no pity for the disbelievers and the apostates even as they are at the height of their tribulation, and they must intensify the pressure on them so they become more pressured and incapable of harming the Muslims by the permission of God the Lord of the Worlds.

It’s a particularly risky time for such an attack—the suicide bombers will be  home-grown, as they largely have been, and I suspect they won’t be too concerned about dying from the pandemic—the timing will most likely be the predicted infection peak.

This lack of concern mirrors Trump’s approach over the past two and a half months—enough intelligence material was circulating in the corridors of power in DC to prompt alleged insider trading by various senators on both sides of the aisle, but as usual the president’s gut knew best.

The US reacted far too slowly and in a completely fragmented fashion—at the federal level it focused on the economy instead of public health, like someone trying to fight melanoma with cold cream.

Finally, some of the right noises are coming from above, mainly from Anthony Fauci, head of NIAID, and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force—a man worthy of respect.

Trump, on the other hand, is adept at sowing confusion, with glib suggestions about the efficacy of the malarial drug hydroxychloroquin—the most up-to-date information from the Centers For Disease Control is not nearly so sanguine, but folks don’t read that—they stick to Twitter and WhatsApp.

On March 18th, Bill Ackman, CEO of Pershing Square Capital, raised the bar on CNBC, asking for America to shut down, along with affected areas in the rest of the world—governors in several US states have shown clear leadership on this while the federal government showed none.

In the United Kingdom, the approach has been similar—the tail wagging the dog. The narrative from the prime minister is as confusing as his hairstyle, drifting from tepid to lukewarm—Brexit lurks everywhere, since the government cannot possibly align with the EU in this brave new world. Finally, the pubs are shut, following Ireland’s lead one week ago—and it took balls to shut them forty-eight hours before St. Patrick’s day!

Leadership, balls and ovaries, and good ideas—Yossi Sheffi, director of MIT’s CTF, came up with a brace of them this week—my favorites? 3-D printing of ventilators, one-way aisles in supermarkets, and getting rid of the asinine term ‘social distancing’ by calling it what it actually is—physical distancing.

And when it comes to leadership and balls, observers have been quick to point out the contrast between Andrew Cuomo’s pledge that ‘the buck stops on my desk’, contrasting it with the president’s utter rejection of responsibility.

The analogy between republican president Herbert Hoover’s mishandling of the Great Depression and the leadership shown by Franklin D. Roosevelt, then democrat governor of New York, escapes no one, particularly in an election year.

As the song goes, and we need music at this terrible time, it makes me wonder.

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

It’s the Ecology, Stupid!

March 14, 2020

I was looking forward to going to the US at the end of the month—both coasts, wonderful plans—everything canceled.

As a consolation prize, I drove to Spain yesterday to pick up a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy—the AKC describes the ridgeback as a ‘renaissance hound‘ but I have no idea what that means.

As soon as the digital border was crossed, my radio flipped to Onda Cero and I was subjected to an excitable babble of panic-lisping about the coronavirus.

I drove through Extremadura in the thinnest of traffic, and when I stopped at a gas station on the highway, the entire shop was locked down. I bought some washer fluid through a night-pay hatch—at 5 pm—and the guy who served me looked like he’d seen a ghost. All I could think about was The Day of the Triffids.

The anchor on the radio said Spain was expected to top ten thousand cases—with delicate irony, the minister for equality had just tested positive—and the signs on the highway simply said ¡Quédate en casa!

On the way to Spain, I ate lunch at a favorite spot on the Portuguese side of the border. By the time I leave, the place is usually teeming with Spaniards, drawn in by the excellent seafood and the great prices—queues past the door are the norm, kids run amok, and a small bar outside serves barrel-loads of beer to waiting patrons—but today there were six people eating.

Europe is closed but the Shengen borders are open. The different EU nations know perfectly well how to self-regulate, and there’s no better example in the world than Italy—a democracy that shone a beacon of leadership in everything: testing, disclosure, and mitigation.

Every nation in Europe has a policy in place—in Portugal, schools and universities have closed, and restaurants can admit only one third of their current capacity—I shall shortly be putting that rule to the test.

It’s outrageous to hear pundits on the US TV channels attempt to rationalize Trump’s cretinous decision to stop travel from the EU (and now also the UK and Ireland) because of free movement in Europe—the virus escalation in the US has just started, yet anyone can travel from California to Oregon, from Florida to Tennessee, without any restrictions—European Union means exactly that.

It’s quite normal to lie about the economy, foreign relations, home affairs, and voter support—most politicians do it at one time or other, though none as consistently as the current US president—I grew up in a totalitarian country where government-mediated disinformation was the norm, but in a vibrant democracy like the United States there is consistent push-back and Trump and his minions continually struggle to contain the criticism.

You can lie about biodiversity, about climate change, and other issues related to ecology—although if there are only five species left on earth, or the ocean has risen to the height of your dining room table, the narrative becomes slightly less robust.

In the end it wasn’t Stormy Daniels or the series of other women allegedly abused by Trump who brought him down, not the perennial lies, denials, and flip-flops—it’s the ecology, stupid.

And yes, I know he’s not down yet, but this is the closest it’s been—I can smell it. And the irony that a Chinese virus will achieve what American democracy seems unable to do is unmissable.

Why ecology? Because nature doesn’t lie. You can’t borrow, print, or obfuscate your way out of trouble when people are dying from a disease like this—not in a democracy you can’t—dead is dead.

Everyday fibs generate little response—but reassurance about a pathogenic agent by a pathological liar is another matter. The narrative of excuses and fabrications about contagion, testing, and treatment is patently pathetic, as is the coterie of sycophants.

Someone (members of the CDC please raise your hand) remind this gaggle of clowns that three to six feet is a prudent distance to avoid contagion.

As the human race morphed into Übermensch—that’s not a novelty cab driver, by the way—biology was replaced with economics. From our elevated heights, we wallowed in the constructs built by the master race—many so fictional we are unable to predict an interest rate next year or an exchange rate next month.

With people like Trump at the helm—a giant helm for tiny hands—the initial measures taken to fight Covid-19 practically all focused on minimizing economic impact, when the key emphasis, as well as the discourse, should have placed biology front and center.

This is a recipe followed by epidemiologists worldwide—predicated on detection, confinement, treatment, and transparency, and tested on the battlefields of Ebola and Bird Flu—shithole-country epidemics one and all. Instead, we got disingenuous and callous TV video bites, and five-second pseudo-clarifications.

The results were predictable: confidence tanked and the stock market dived. Yesterday the market came rocketing back up after a drop not seen since 1987. Next week it will drop again as more cases and more deaths are inevitably reported  in the press—economic concerns condition the tough public health measures needed in the US from a president who always put his self-interest at the core of any decision.

A young houndette contemplates the American president’s chances in 2020.

Key crisis management measures have not been put in place internally for fear of jeopardizing the November election—American lives are being sacrificed for the putative benefit of one man.

In parallel, two other things are abundantly clear: (i) disbanding key government departments to please the voting public is dumb; (ii) surrounding yourself with a coterie of brown-nosers who salute the emperor’s new clothes is even dumber.

Panic has set in, as evidenced by a key indicator—Costco ran out of toilet paper. I am bemused—I can only speculate that those cardboard centers are used for some kinky sexual act that has never penetrated (excuse the pun) my sheltered existence. But on the other hand, I have laid down a few weeks’ supply of red wine.

In the United States, people infected with coronavirus will continue to die. The fact that they may end up giving their lives to save American democracy will be cold comfort.

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

The Chinese Pox

March 8, 2020

Pox is a contracted (excuse the pun) form of pockes. The use of ‘x’ in spelling, as in ‘thanx’ or ‘trax’, is usually a US contribution to the English language, but ‘pox’ dates back to the XVIth century.

A pocke (as in pockmarked) meant a blister or pustule, and pox soon became a generic description for diseases that mark the skin, like smallpox and chickenpox.

The invasion of Naples by the French in 1494 led to the appearance of the French Pox—as the English called it—or syphilis, a disease that ravaged Europe over the following centuries. In fact, the disease was not French at all—it had been brought from the New World by the Spaniards who sailed with Columbus.

Subsequent poxes have caused mayhem in human populations, and for centuries served as an effective population control. Overcrowding, poor hygiene, promiscuity, and pollution have been traditional drivers of epidemics, but by the first quarter of the twentieth century medical science had progressed sufficiently to control many bacterial, viral, and parasitic diseases.

This gave comfort to the Western World, although lack of resources, drugs, and medical care meant the world became increasingly asymmetric with respect to disease—this mirrors other gaps such as wealth, food security, infant deaths, and life expectancy, all of which have widened.

A trip from the West to sub-Saharan Africa entails a battery of vaccines and an orgy of pill-taking, but for the most part the locals themselves are not protected against many of the diseases, including cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis A.

It stands to reason that the prevalence of these pathogens in African countries is exactly because the diseases are rife, which by definition means that humans have them and die from them.

Medics and medicines are scarce—I was invited for dinner in the malaria-infested Songo area of NW Mozambique, only to find I was sitting at a table in a room which had only window frames, devoid of any mozzie nets. My host explained that the house was rat-infested when he first moved in, which invariably attracted snakes. And no, he didn’t have any antivenom, he relied on the dogs to keep out the snakes. Two dogs barked out in the yard—another had been killed a fortnight ago by a cobra who spat venom with surgical precision into the poor hound’s eyes.

When I flew to Africa, Italy was not on the coronavirus radar—by the time I returned one week later there were almost two thousand confirmed cases. On March 6th, the Italian civil protection agency reported 4636 cases and 197 deaths, which puts the death rate at four percent.

Italian Civil Protection Department coronavirus dashboard. Italy gives the world a lesson in transparency.

‘If you look for it, you will find it,’ doctors tell us, and the Italian health system took it to heart. Other European countries have been far less thorough in their assessment—in general, common sense about the new pathogen has largely been replaced with blind panic, a standard human reaction to epidemics.

Several politicians have been doing the worst thing possible, with the orange man engaging in hunch-medicine—a Trump supporter bizarrely denied the existence of the virus, which has has over three hundred known cases and several deaths in the US.

Pathogen-host relationships are very complex, but in some cases pathogens have a particular temperature preference—this has been analysed for flu (the name originally comes from influenza del freddo, or influence of the cold)—the flu virus can survive a day or more at 43o F, but only one hour at 90o F.

The behavior of the influenza virus may seem peculiar, given its host is warm-blooded, but a paper published by the National Institutes of Health in 2008 provides a clue:

At winter temperatures, the virus’s outer covering, or envelope, hardens to a rubbery gel that could shield the virus as it passes from person to person… At warmer temperatures, however, the protective gel melts to a liquid phase. But this liquid phase apparently isn’t tough enough to protect the virus against the elements, and so the virus loses its ability to spread from person to person

Covid-19 has appeared—and apparently thrived—in a wide range of countries, so it may be less sensitive to temperature than its brethren.

Like Anglia’s King Canute (Knut of Denmark), and the Hangzhou archers who shot arrows at a tidal bore to restrain it, so the orang-u-tan labors under the illusion he can stop the forces of nature.

If things in the US go like everywhere else—and they will—cases will spike over the next weeks, jetting up into the thousands.

Perhaps ordinary folk will finally realize that science cannot be beat by tweet.

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


March 1, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About five hundred.”

“Show me.”

I open the wallet and show fifteen hundred mets.

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

He sees a few euro banknotes.

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

“Not Red Cross.”

“When are you coming back?”

“In three months.” Wait for it…

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

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

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

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

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

The doctor gives him a tired look.

“All my mistakes are dead.”

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


February 15, 2020

When compared to other languages in Southeast Asia, Bahasa Indonesia is easy to learn. Like Mandarin, verbs are infinitive only—it’s about the only thing in this part of the world that doesn’t conjugate—but unlike putonghua, the people’s language of China, there are no tones, and the Western alphabet is a visual cue to the spoken word.

After a week in-country, and three islands down, I feel right at home. Europe and the US seem eons away and the fortitude and friendliness of these people is a very special experience.

Life is cheap in Indonesia, in every sense of the word. Prices? Day-to-day purchases are inexpensive, unless you go for a spot of anggur—wine is worse than the driving, and believe me, that’s saying something.

A few days ago, I drove down from Lake Toba on a single-lane carriageway—work dragged on and night fell, so the four-hour trip to Medan, on the north Sumatran coast, was astonishingly scary. The driver’s name was Arni, and he was immediately christened Arnie Schumacher.

Lake Toba, in peaceful sleep, shrouded with clouds in the early morning. A typical Sumatran Batak sits in the foreground.

The Sumatrans are a fearless lot—they’ve elevated the technique of parallel driving into a martial art. At any given moment, you may be three layers out on a single lane, flanked on the inside by a truck and then a bike—in all likelihood, the bike has more passengers than the truck, and you watch spellbound as Arnie flashes and honks his way past an oncoming bus, which is busy running a scooter equipped with a full siu mai mobile kitchen rig off the road.

Pedestrians, kids, and dogs go about their business wholly unconcerned, smiling through the exhaust fumes, only inches away from a certain death. I feel as if I’m living in my own video game—virtual reality it ain’t.

Medical care is of variable quality, but as long as your health holds up and you scored the infinite lives hack for the driving game, everything’s a blast.

Lake Toba is seventy-four thousand years old, created by one of earth’s most orgasmic volcanic eruptions, and scientists have argued fiercely over its effects—it is consensual that six inches of ash settled all over south Asia, and that the atmospheric aerosols lowered the planet’s temperature for a substantial period of time.

Values of one, three, and five degrees have been proposed, and there is no doubt that effects of the Torgasm were detected in both Lake Malawi and Greenland—other theories that suggest global cooling endured for a thousand years, affected the snowline, and almost led to human extinction are more contentious.

Bali was the last stop of the trip—I headed east, or timur, from Medan, back across the equator, and into another timezone. Inside the plane, we all looked like extras in a Zorro movie.

Denpasar is usually loaded with Chinese, but the Indonesians blocked all ports of entry—the fleshpots of Kuta and Seminyak were free of celestials.

My business lunch was a stroll through Jimbaran market, where trigger fish, snappers, and parrot fish fight for space with local crabs and lobsters. Pics don’t due it justice—you miss the potent smells of ikan, cigarette smoke, and the faint aroma of sewage.

After a suitable beastie is bargained, bought, and bagged, a princely sum of five bucks changes hands and the warung around the corner grills the snappers for a buck or two. The restaurant itself is part of a row of lean-to shacks, and the patrons are mainly Russian—one guy has a mountain of Bintang, a local Heineken clone, in front of a him, and his girlfriend wears a T-Shirt that says, ‘Bad Choices Make Good Stories’—I hope she doesn’t get to test that one—Kerobokan prison is just down the road.

Bali is a Hindu enclave in a nation of two hundred sixty million Muslims. To the more extreme Islamists it’s a dissipated inferno of sex, alcohol, and drugs. Fifteen years ago, Jimbaran beach—a stone’s throw from the warung where I’m sitting—and Kuta Square were targeted by the Jemaah Islamiyah.

The 2005 bombings followed the 2002 terror attack on a nightclub—to Islamic radicals, the height of kuffar debauchery—in Kuta called Paddy’s Pub.

The monument to those killed in the 2002 Kuta bombings. The cameo appearance of the Jemaah Islamiyah in my book Atmos Fear is inspired by the Bali bombings.

Indonesia recurrently deals with radicals intent on moving the nation toward Sharia—a quick look at a map illustrates the challenges facing the country—from NW Sumatra to West Papua it spans three and a half thousand miles and contains seventeen thousand islands.

In my wanderings so far I’ve barely scratched the surface of this nation of gentle people and ready smiles—three out of seventeen thousand? Come on!

I wake up just before five in my Lake Toba hotel. Jet lag is biting, but that’s not the whole story. Across the valley, the muezzin is calling the faithful to prayer, singing his lure from the minaret.

But wait… what is this other sound that turns the rainy pre-dawn into the battle of the bands?

Ah yes, it’s the competing forces of the Methodist and Catholic Gereja P.A. systems, broadcasting the Lord’s Prayer in Bahasa.

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

Toodle Pip

February 2, 2020

Brits are masters of the euphemism—sorry, was that EU-phemism?

At the drop of midnight on Friday in Europe, eleven post-mortem UK time, the Brits went on their merry way. When I say ‘merry’, one’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek, since practically everyone I know in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland is thoroughly ticked awf at the prospect of leaving the European Union.

Total number of applications for Irish passports from residents of Northern Ireland and for the whole of Britain.

But the majority voted, the pols played their silly games, and here we are. The true spoilers, of Farage and Bannon calibre, are hell-bent on destroying the EU. Trump’s a big fan of tearing it apart, and then there’s a smattering of neo-fascists in places like Poland and Hungary who are talking up dismemberment—literally the process of removing members.

In the recently published book ‘A Very Stable Genius’, the authors reveal that after the Bastille Day parade, Trump confided in Macron that ‘ he never realized France had won a few wars.’ Useful idiots and historical autism aside, the coterie of EU bashers have one thing in common—wistful tears for long-vanished empires, and a hatred that there may be a new kid on the block—Ursula von der Leyen expressed it perfectly: ‘in unity lies strength.’

As for European diversity, Mississippi and Rhode Island too have little in common, except McDonald’s and arguably a common language.

I’m flying to Asia right now, munitioned with a couple of surgical masks, since the airports look like scenes from Armageddon. This is the Asia that once housed the British Empire, and Doha’s Hamad airport was pretty er… mad, replete with Indians, Afghans, Chinese, and every other stripe, looking like a surgeons’ convention—as for the locals, it’s pretty funny to see Mid-Eastern men wearing veils for a change.

As a viral aside, I wonder if countries where the veil is worn show a difference between sexes (or genders, if one must) when it comes to contagion—I would imagine it would be easy to test, even for the common cold—in places such as Saudi Arabia, where segregation is routine.

My stomping ground over the next couple of weeks is exactly where the English (for it is they, not the thrifty Scots nor the Irish diaspora) hope to make the deal of the century—perhaps Bojo & Co. plan to memorize DJ’s ‘Art of the Deal’, but unfortunately the English, much like the orange man, aren’t particularly good at making deals unless accompanied by gunships, of the helicopter variety or otherwise.

The Financial Times weekend edition—you get through a lot of newspapers on long-hauls—carries a particularly interesting review of the love-hate relationships between UK prime ministers and Europe.

Churchill’s position, later endorsed by Eden, was well-known—Europe must unite, but without the Brits, who would dedicate themselves to building the bridge between the continent and the US and sally forth to their erstwhile empire to seek their true destiny.

With typical English arrogance, they neglected to accept that they had all but lost the empire, that Britain would never have won the Second World War (or the first) without America, that the US considered the UK a minor relative whereas a grateful post-war Europe welcomed Britain with open arms, and that the ex-colonies had no desire whatsoever—much less a strong incentive—to do trade deals benefiting the UK.

Furthermore, when waxing starry-eyed of empire, the English thought themselves unique, ignoring the reality of so many other European countries, including Spain, whose projection in South and Central America was and is huge, France, who remains closely linked to an important swathe of central Africa, and Portugal, who until 1975 actually had an empire.

India, Pakistan, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and  all the others saw an opportunity to sell goods into the UK, far more than buying from them. But mainly, their nationals saw a huge chance to offset Britain’s shortage of menial jobs through immigration—the sons and grandsons of Bengalis, Kashmiris, Sri Lankans, Keralans, and so many others are now far better placed in British society, from business to politics, than the vast majority of Brexiteers.

The move away from Europe is very much in the interest of those high-flyers—children of Pakistani bus drivers and cleaners—whose natural alliances are not to be found in the commercial houses of the Rhineland, the agricultural powerhouses of the Po valley, or the region of Champagne, but in the floodplains of the Irrawaddy and the Ganges.

When China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, and the other big boys get the call from the Foreign Office, it’s unlikely they’ll shiver with the fevers of orgasm at the prospect of a bilateral deal with a nation of sixty million moderately affluent people, a country better known for perfidy and calculation than equitable terms, when in the grand scheme of things they’re selling to four hundred million Europeans—from the corner convenience to the Kremlin capitalists, everyone knows the difference between retail and wholesale.

So let’s turn to the British citizens, and in particular to those who celebrated Brexit—many of whom have no clear idea why they want to leave, in what ways the EU actually makes their life worse, and what their expectations are for this bright new day—these are the folks that make up the backbone of the disenfranchised British working class, weaned on the glory tales of the Tommies, who watched their local economy shrink and their jobs migrate, both at home and overseas.

At home, the pitiless march of corporate greed left whole communities empty—my forthcoming book, The Hourglass, tells that tale—and what little remained was scooped by busloads of Poles and Romanians. Britwealth sits in the boardrooms and trading floors of the square mile, while the country sits on its haunches and, true to form, blames the bloody Frogs and Krauts.

Once again, the trusty FT comes to the rescue, this time with an article about Lincolnshire—just east of Nottingham and Sherwood Forest, where Robin of the Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor.

In the town of Boston, celebrated for voting Brexit three-to-one, the former mayor now runs a model airplane store—I’m not sure if we’re talking Airfix here, but I’m pretty sure eBay will put him out of business shortly after I hit ‘Post’.

The mayor describes the local economy as ‘a broken system of ruthless supermarkets—driving down the price of food—captured suppliers, cheap labor, and rising rents.’

The tale of the town is the tale of Brexit. Big Ag ran the market gardeners to the ground, and menial work was taken over by East Europeans. Bloody Frogs! Back to Russia with the bloody lot of ‘em.

And awf they went, in good order. Now that Britain is a third country in respect of the EU, let’s hope its good friends are ready, willing, and able.

One thing’s for sure, there’s no one left to blame. Well, except the bloody Scots!

Happy trails Bojo. You break it, you own it.

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

The Crown

January 25, 2020

Every few years, a new pox comes around to remind us we are mere mortals.

Two groups of disease agents concern humans most—bacteria, which have been known for far longer and are better understood, and viruses.

This is not to say that humans are not susceptible to other attackers—fungi are a case in point, and when it comes to other parasites, we have plenty—including single-celled organisms such as protozoa, as well as sizable creatures like flatworms.

Current estimates are that less than half of our body is made up of human cells, such as heart, skin, or liver. The other fifty-seven percent is foreign, and largely constitutes what health and wellness sites, supermarkets, and dietary gurus love to call the microbiome.

In terms of scale, if we average out world population, including children, to a weight of fifty-five pounds, or twenty-five kilograms each, eight billion people carry a weight of two hundred million metric tons, of which over half—one hundred fourteen million—is not us.

In the last decade, scientists have uncovered some fascinating stuff about our microbiome. The reduction of bacterial infections over the last seventy-five years due to the discovery of antibiotics has been remarkable—but in destroying the bacteria that do us harm, we also attack those that help us live—as a result, allergies have increased hugely.

Obesity has also been linked to the bacteria in your gut—a diet of burgers and fries promotes the presence of microbes that increase obesity, whereas a ‘lean’ microbiome can have the opposite effect.

Bacteria are like love—can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Viruses, on the other hand, are the dark side.

Although Pasteur discovered a vaccine for rabies, he didn’t understand what caused it. One of his assistants, Edouard Chamberland, patented a filter that retained bacteria and several scientists subsequently showed that diseases could still be transmitted after all bacteria were removed—whatever was responsible, passed through the filter.

Sea cucumbers, one of many exotic dishes I’ve eaten in China through the years.

Viruses are obligate parasites, meaning they only thrive inside the host. Some of the most interesting and nasty virus infections in recent memory, such as AIDS, SARS, and Ebola, have been associated with transmission from other animals to Man—the current spread of coronavirus is more of the same.

I’ll be in southeast Asia within a week, at which point the disease will have spread considerably—right now, it’s showing up in Thailand, South Korea and Singapore—so I have a personal interest in monitoring this particular epidemic.

AIDS originated in chimps, as a similar virus to HIV called SIV (for Simian). Not in the 1960s or 1970s, but one hundred years ago, in the 1920s. The crossover to humans is linked to consumption of these animals by Congolese tribes.

Likewise, Ebola, SARS, and now the new coronovirus are diet-related. Let’s face it, we are what we eat.

Ebola was linked to apes (and possibly bats), and SARS to bats. Bird flu, which was around a few years ago, was linked to ducks, geese, and chickens—all mainstays of Guangdong cuisine.

The new virus was first detected a few weeks ago in a food market in the city of Wuhan, once the capital of the Kuomintang—based on previous experience, that means it’s been around considerably longer.

When the phrase ‘food market’ is used in the West, it conjures up images of clean buildings, hygienic produce, and a wholesome family experience.

In the East, it is something very different. Every Chinese town has live food markets where an assortment of animals are kept in cages until sold to restaurants and households. Every Chinese restaurant of any standing will have fish and shellfish in aquariums—whereas in Southern Europe there may be one large tank containing lobsters, crabs, and the occasional bag of oysters, in China, individual species are kept in their own tanks—it’s not unusual to see twenty or thirty separate aquariums.

The live food market where the coronavirus epidemic is believed to have started stocked the usual range of crazy stuff, including porcupines, turtles, and crocodiles, as well as bugs, frogs, scorpions, and many kinds of seafood—snails, crabs, shrimp, fish, sea cucumbers, abalone, and geoduck will have been featured.

Apart from all the transport restrictions in mainland China, and now also in xiāng găng—the fragrant port of Hong-Kong—the sixty million dollar question is: which animal did this virus jump from?

And if you don’t know what a geoduck is, what better way to usher in the Chinese New Year?

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


January 19, 2020

I was going to call this article the Year of the Rat, since Monday marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year. If you were born in 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, or points south, this is your year.

However, I found a previous article by that name, and the rule is no repeats. It’s worth recalling why that name was given, back in 2013.

…apparently rats, and a host of other vermin, masquerading as mutton, have been consistently sold to consumers in China…

The Middle Kingdom doesn’t do things by halves—nine hundred arrests, twenty thousand tons of fake meat products. In these days of austerity, ten million Portuguese would eat for a week!

Twenty thousand metric tons of rat? A fair-sized rodent weighs in at about half a pound, or 250 grams, so we’re talking eighty thousand rats—you’d need a pretty large sewer.

Oops, I hope you’re not reading this over lunch!

The Chinese New Year is celebrated as the Spring Festival—a little early in 2020, because it is set by the lunar calendar, and this year the date falls on January twenty-fifth, almost two months short of the astronomical spring.

But don’t you believe for a minute this dampens their enthusiasm.

China is a country that moves together—it’s a collective system, a highly cooperative society. It needs to be, otherwise 1.4 billion people could not coexist—individualism is frowned upon, as reflected in the aphorism ‘man who shine too brightly cast a long shadow.’

I’m not being jocular about the grammar, I’m making the point that Mandarin doesn’t have any. No articles, definite or otherwise, no prepositions, no verb tenses, no capitals, no punctuation—if you want to ask a question you tag ma on the end of a sentence.

nǐ dē míng zì shì shěn mé or 你的名字是什么

your name is what (question)

The capacity and motivation of the Chinese to act collectively is potentially very dangerous—when the country moves, it really shifts. On the other hand, individual opinions and ideas are frowned upon, so Western education, innovation, and technology have an edge there.

The Middle Kingdom shuts down during the festival. Contrary to the West, red is a lucky color, so that’s what you wear—and of course, no Chinese celebration would be complete without fireworks—after all, they invented them.

The Chinese perform a ritual cleaning of their homes and their bodies for the Spring Festival, a true ‘spring-clean‘, and go forth to visit family—today and much of next week will be extremely busy at all Chinese airports, on the road, and on the huŏchē (火车), or train.

Chinese and German are similar in that both languages are based on compound words—in Mandarin there is little choice, since a ‘word’ is just a sequence of characters: car is a vapor vehicle, train is a fire vehicle, and bus is public common vapor vehicle (4 characters, 公共汽车 spoken gōnggòngqìchē).

The traditional greeting at this time of year is guò nián hăo, literally ‘celebrate year good.’ Of course, with so few sounds available, a slight variation of guo means something entirely different.

guo means dog in Mandarin. When I reviewed the usage examples in my Chinese app, everything was going so well until that last one…

nian (年), pronounced nien, as in Vienna, is a monster whose favorite pastime is eating people and animals all year round. The annual monster can be driven off with the color red, and the Chinese exchange the greeting in the hope of a monster-free year.

This is a time to buy new clothes, matching the clean house and body, and of course to give presents. In Xi Jinping’s China, gifts and banquets have become a sign of corruption, but this time of year is special—the Chinese manufacture and sell all the West’s Christmas products, from cellphones to sellotape, then they have another shopping boom before their own new year, then they clear inventory—now’s a good time to grab a good price on consumer electronics from the Middle Kingdom.

Everything in China comes with rules, and guò nián is no exception. There are rules for food, as in the West, but there are other interesting restrictions—it is forbidden to speak of death or illness, and the character 四 (, pronounced shèh) cannot be spoken, for it is the number four, and the word for death is also sǐ (but a different tone, indicated by the diacritical mark).

The ‘4’ superstition actually merits a Wikipedia entry for tetraphobia! I don’t suffer from it, but I made sure my phone number has no fours in it—no creo en brujas, pero que las hay, las hay.

Out of all the foibles related in the Wikipedia article, this is the most fascinating one.

The British Medical Journal reported in a study that looked at mortality statistics in the United States over a 25-year period. They found that on the fourth day of the month, Asian people were thirteen percent more likely to die of heart failure. In California, Asians were twenty-seven percent more likely to die of a heart attack on that day.

Twenty percent of the world’s population will go nuts next week, forgetting all about Trump, trade deals, and Taiwan-China conflicts.

Shanghai is the ‘fun’ city, by contrast with Beijing. In 1946, this is how they ushered in the Year of the Dog.

At the very end of the last day of 2019, to mark the start of 2020, they laid on an amazing drone display for the Western new year, broadcast on TV all over the world—except it never happened.

Let’s see what they come up with next weekend. I could be something like this.

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

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