Saturday, February 29, 2020

Covid-19: keep calm and make a plan

While some of the Press produce shouty headlines for fun and profit and others affect armchair insouciance, the truth lies somewhere in between: no, it’s not going to kill us all; no, it’s not just flu; no, it’s not going away.
This week’s Spectator adopts the postprandially relaxed position. Martin Vander Weyer reassures us that the recent stockmarket reverses (btw, in percentage terms nothing remotely like the Dow’s one-day drop in 1987 ) may offer buying opportunities, particularly in pharma firms seeking a vaccine for Covid-19, though (chuckle) investors should ‘wash hands and don a face mask’ before placing their bets. Well yes, I think the frail, twisted state of the world’s financial system is currently much more of a real and present danger to shareholders and pensioners; but we’ll come back to vaccines in a moment.
The Speccie’s Ross Clark also seeks to allay our ‘hysteria’ about coronavirus, but his downplaying doesn’t quite work for me. Like so many, he makes the comparison with influenza in the winter of 2017-18, quoting the Office for National Statistics’ figure of 50,000 fatalities, but must have missed the British Medical Journal’s comment (referencing Public Health England’s study): ‘the ONS seem to have exaggerated the risk to the public by in the region of 150 times.’ . The fatality rate from seasonal flu is something like one in a thousand; The Guardian (28 February) says Covid-19 is ‘ten times more deadly.’ . Clark tells us that SARS (9.6% fatalities ) and H5N1 (60% death rate ) ‘hardly justify’ being called epidemics, let alone pandemics; and ‘If China had not taken such dramatic steps to stop the [Covid-19] disease, we wouldn’t be half as worried.’ Au contraire, the Chinese should have acted earlier and faster and they are certainly not overreacting now; the dropped match that might have been doused quickly at the start has become a blaze requiring all available appliances.
Covid-19 is much less fatal than SARS, but has a similarly high level of transmission from person to person. The threshold contagion rate for an epidemic is R1, i.e. on average each person passes the disease on to one more; MERS and the highly deadly H5N1 were below this rate, but SARS was in the region of R2-R3 and Covid-19 is now thought to be similarly infective , though earlier estimated at R4
What makes the latest coronavirus more dangerous is that it seems to have a longer incubation period than SARS’ 2-7 days , so there is a greater chance that it will slip through basic screening measures at airports etc. It also vastly expands the network of possible contacts before and after a case of infection, so containment becomes exponentially more difficult. The UK’s twentieth case, appearing in Surrey on Friday, is the first to have occurred here through secondary or tertiary transmission but given a prolonged pre-symptom period the trail can easily go cold.
Paradoxically, a quick and deadly disease is less of a threat, since it can be spotted early and eliminates its host fast before it can find many new ones; Covid-19 may go on to claim lots more victims overall because it kills a small percentage of a much larger number. Interviewed by The Atlantic magazine, Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch opines, ‘I think the likely outcome is that it will ultimately not be containable,’ so rather than an epidemic or pandemic it will be endemic: a new regular seasonal illness like colds and flu, but one for which – as with other coronaviruses - there may be no long-lasting immunity, and which is more fatal than flu.
In the same Atlantic article, the CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness points out that even though a vaccine may be developed by Spring or summer this year, testing for safety and effectiveness may mean it is not publicly available until 12 – 18 months from now.
Meanwhile, we can begin to analyse and quantify the risk factors of Covid-19, based on cases identified so far. Worldometer combines information from two authoritative sources to estimate the likelihood of dying if infected, according to age, sex and pre-existing medical conditions. The initial indications are:
1.  Below age 50, the risk of death is 0.4% or less; after that, it goes from 1.3% to above 10% at age 80
2. Men are significantly more vulnerable than women, BUT most cases so far are Chinese and in China, men are much more likely to be smokers (as this study confirms )
3. In descending order, the following conditions significantly increase mortality risk: cardiovascular disease; diabetes; chronic respiratory disease; hypertension; cancer.
On the basis of the above, we can begin thinking about public and individual strategies to cope with the challenge of Covid-19.
First, timing: we need a plan to get through the next 18 months to two years, by which time a vaccine may become available. During this time, we all need to be extra-cautious, not only to evade the virus personally but to avoid spreading it to others. Perhaps all public places – e.g. schools, shops, offices, places of worship and mass entertainment – should have wall-mounted hand sanitisers as is standard in hospital wards. We need to wash hands frequently. Masks, says the government’s advice to transport workers , ‘do not provide protection from respiratory viruses [but should] be worn by symptomatic passengers to reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to other people.’ One reader suggested shopping off-peak if possible; others may have more ideas to offer.
Then, focus: the elderly and infirm are clearly much more at risk. Maybe the NHS Secretary could authorise doctors and pharmacies to allow the old and weak to stockpile essential medicines so that if there is a local outbreak they can self-isolate in order to avoid contracting the disease; and their carers and visitors need to be much more scrupulous in hygiene precautions (think of sheltered accommodation and nursing homes.) There may need to be safer arrangements for them to access GP and hospital services. Those who still work may be permitted to do more at home. Health advice and initiatives may increase their stress on reducing smoking, excess body weight (dieting can beat diabetes in some cases), blood pressure etc. How about preparing varied food packs and menus to make it simpler for the vulnerable to have adequate and appropriate nutrition to endure a viral siege? (We need a new Lord Woolton and Marguerite Patten!)
Any more ideas?

Friday, February 28, 2020

FRIDAY MUSIC: Mandolin Orange, by JD

Mandolin Orange is an Americana/folk duo based out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The group was formed in 2009 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and consists of the group's songwriter Andrew Marlin (vocals, mandolin, guitar, banjo) and Emily Frantz (vocals, violin, guitar).

"Mandolin Orange’s music radiates a mysterious warmth —their songs feel like whispered secrets, one hand cupped to your ear. The North Carolina duo have built a steady and growing fanbase with this kind of intimacy, and on Tides of A Teardrop, due out February 1, it is more potent than ever. By all accounts, it is the duo’s fullest, richest, and most personal effort. You can hear the air between them—the taut space of shared understanding, as palpable as a magnetic field, that makes their music sound like two halves of an endlessly completing thought. Singer-songwriter Andrew Marlin and multi-instrumentalist Emily Frantz have honed this lamp glow intimacy for years."

There was a comment beneath one of their videos which compared them to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris and that is high praise indeed: Listen to Parsons/Harris singing 'Love Hurts' to understand why.

... Tim O'Brien's was the first version of Pretty Maid that I heard and its origin is 17th century and has changed over the years, as ancient folk songs often do -

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Covid-19: die another day

The following is a riposte to some commenters at The Conservative Woman, where a version of yesterday's post was published
Covid-19 a scare story? Pace a number of commenters on the last piece: no. You will recall that Professor Ferguson was quoted as saying the risk of infection in the UK could be 60% and the fatality rate 1%, meaning (given the size of our population) a possible 400,000 victims.
That is simply logic. If the coronavirus spreads easily and nobody does anything, many people will catch it. The point is to change our behaviour to reduce the risk. Some of those changes can be a matter of individual choice, some collective.
The wrong collective action may result in worse outcomes. The ‘Diamond Princess’ cruise ship had some 3,700 souls on board when ten passengers were diagnosed with the illness . In quarantine, the number of cases has risen to 691 (as of 26 Feb 12:25 GMT ). That is about 18 per cent of passengers and crew, not the 60 per cent that the Professor speculated; on the other hand, these were frightened people keeping in their quarters, trying very hard not to be the next patients. Sadly, the ship’s ventilation system could have helped spread the virus , in a way similar to Legionnaire’s Disease .
Of those infected, only four (less than one per cent) have died so far; but the passengers on a luxury sea voyage will be well-nourished, well-cared-for people, and the seriously ill were taken to Japanese hospitals, presumably among the best in the world. Globally (but so far, overwhelmingly in China), 3.4 per cent of cases have resulted in death, 37 percent have recovered and 59 per cent are still fighting the illness; so it is too early to say what the true ratios will finally turn out to be.
However, let’s say for the sake of argument everybody decides to ignore all risks and precautions and the Professor’s estimate is exactly correct. Result: 0.6 per cent of the UK population dies; but by the same token, that means 99.4 per cent will not die of Covid-19 (though many may suffer a period of unpleasant illness.)
What we need is neither panic nor blasé complacency; we need perspective. In 2017 the UK population was (officially) 65.6 million , and 607,172 people died from all causes – less than one in a hundred. In fact, the average person’s risk of dying in the next twelve months stays below one per cent until they hit their late fifties . You have to be in your mid-eighties before the chance of meeting the Grim Reaper gets higher than ten per cent – good odds!
Why all the fuss then? you may ask. The issue is avoidability: the Office for National Statistics estimates that almost a quarter of those 2017 deaths – i.e. over 140,000 fatalities – could have been avoided, either by ‘timely and effective healthcare’ or ‘public health interventions’ (and there are three big things we can do personally to improve our chances of a long life .) A laissez-faire approach to Covid-19 could add up to 400,000 unnecessary deaths to the total – quadrupling the toll.
We can’t leave everything to our chronically inept government. Apart from anything else, we have to think what we would do if, say, some lockdown was imposed and shop shelves were cleared in panic buying, as has happened in Italy – our worst enemy could be other people’s behaviour. It’s no good waiting till then: as the ancient Greek saying goes, there is no borrowing a sword in time of war.
Not only are there practical things we can do to protect ourselves, we have a good idea who is most at risk so we can give them extra help. For example, we can ensure that an elderly or infirm relative has enough goods in the house not to have to go out if the virus has come nearby; and that visitors, carers and medical staff are firmly reminded to check who they’ve been in contact with recently and to sanitise their hands frequently. Alternatively, if you’re impatient for Granny’s worldly goods, take her out for a bus ride daily at schools chucking-out time; or a cruise.
We all have to go sometime, but if we plan the right course of action it is likely we will die another day, not today; that should provide us with a quantum of solace.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Covid-19: be prepared

Things are moving fast in this outbreak. On February 22 I said there were five cases of Covid-19 in Iran, two of whom had died; now (25 Feb 16:50 GMT) the Johns Hopkins tracker
 records 95 cases and sixteen deaths. In Italy, seven have died (none, a few days ago) out of 283 cases so far; the government has imposed travel restrictions on a dozen northern cities.

Why should the UK (13 cases, no deaths to date) escape the scourge? Or rather, how?

We are only two months into the crisis and aside from frantic research to find a vaccine (that may take a very long time), teams are trying to estimate the likely spread of the disease. The standard model uses an analysis known as ‘SEIR’: what proportion of the population is Susceptible to catching it, how many of those will be Exposed to it, how many Infected, how many will Recover.

There are only two of those categories that are amenable to intervention: giving prompt, good medical treatment (but as we have seen, even high-quality hospitals cannot always save the elderly and infirm); and better still, preventing contagion. As to the latter, a Hungarian study published on February 19 looks at how the  international spread of Covid-19 could be limited, and concludes that countries with less frequent connections to China should focus on entry screening or travel restrictions, whereas those (like the UK) that have a high level of such connections should focus on further measures to control infection after arrival.

The bad news from that paper (see Figure 4, right hand graph)  is that for us, even if numbers of visitors from China are halved and the rate of exposure to others once they are here is cut significantly, the probability of a major outbreak in the UK rises above 50 per cent as total cases in China (outside Hubei province) exceed 600,000. The authors’ graph implies that we are more at risk even than Germany, France and Italy.

In a world that is economically interconnected, the authorities are conflicted, trying to balance safety precautions with the need to keep the trading show on the road. We saw the World Health Organisation first argue against travel restrictions and then warn us that the virus was a ‘serious and imminent threat’ ; now it is telling us that the epidemic has peaked in China  , despite the culture of secrecy there that means we might not know the whole truth.

In the UK, the government attempts a similar compromise: its advice to transport workers assures them that they ‘are not considered to be at a heightened risk of contracting coronavirus as a result of their work’ and that ‘staff are not recommended to wear respiratory masks. They do not provide protection from respiratory viruses.’ Passengers arriving via direct flights from specified areas will be given ‘health announcements [… and] a general declaration 60 minutes before landing on any passenger health issues or suspected cases’; and so on. The latest advice for arrivals from northern Italy is that they should self-isolate .

The British approach may seem too soft-handed, but the alternative strategy of grasping the nettle tightly could be doomed. Although Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, was officially locked down on January 23, this Twitter user says cellphone data shows that nearly 140,000 people escaped the city in the first two weeks of February alone. MedPage Today says that it is possible for the illness to be transmitted by carriers who show no symptoms themselves; they describe a case of a young Chinese woman who inadvertently infected five members of her family. A report from Imperial College, London says that two-thirds of Covid-19 cases that have left China may have gone undetected. In Europe, others may also choose to break quarantines, like that set on northern Italian towns - for example, just across the border in Hohenturn, Austria, a brothel services hundreds of visiting Italians every weekend (htp: ‘Raedwald’ ) and, it seems, Austrian law does not permit the State to impose Italian-type cordons sanitaires. New Scientist magazine says that battle may already be lost .

How bad could it get? On 12 February Professor Neil Ferguson told Radio 4’s Today programme that if the disease got out of control in the UK, potentially 60 per cent of the population could be infected and if the fatality rate is one per cent the toll could run into hundreds of thousands. The latter may well be an under-estimate; outside mainland China it’s over 1.5 per cent (42 deaths out of 2,690 cases, and many of those still sick have yet to recover) and on the Chinese mainland it’s about 3.5 per cent (2,705 deaths from 77,660 cases.)

As with flu generally, old people with underlying health problems are most at risk, but that does not mean the rest of us can be sanguine. Imagine a country where 60 percent of teachers, medical and emergency staff, port workers, passenger transport staff, delivery drivers etc are off sick, even if only on a rolling basis of infection (and possibly even re-infection) over months. The disruption to the economy could be far greater – and far closer to home - than temporary swoons on the stockmarkets . The modern system of just-in-time resupply could become too-late, please-wait.

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst: prudent citizens may have to do more than just wash their hands.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

ART: Interference Paints, by JD

A few more paintings:

Looking for something in the untidiness of my cupboards I found something else, as often happens, which diverted me and now I have forgotten what I was looking for in the first place!

But that something else was a few tubes and jars of 'interference' paints, paints which give a tint to a colour depending on the source of the light.

So I decided to play around with them and see what effects could be achieved. These are all acrylic paintings on 2" x 2" canvas. The half dozen here are the result.

The first canvas, top left, was covered completely with interference gold and then the scene was painted over loosely with bright normal colours and the underpainting shows through in places. Below is an enlarged portion of it; not sure if it can be seen clearly in the image. It shows partially in the tree and on the shore line next to the figures.

A few more with varying success. The dervish is painted with interference copper effect and I think it shows more clearly than the others (I'm not entirely satisfied with the figure so I'll have another try some time.)

The sky behind the line of trees is painted with a fluorescent blue over a yellow background and is very striking in reality, not sure about in the screen image. The ground around the trees is purple mixed with yellow. I might change the shadows at a later date (or not.)

The third image is one of several similar which I did before Christmas, the others given to friends as Xmas presents!

I think I have done about two dozen of these minis over the past two weeks but when I was in Poundland the other day I couldn't see any more. Perhaps they no longer sell them and in fact their art materials are now sparse compared to last year. Perhaps I should 'upgrade' - painting teacher No3 told me ages ago I should be painting 'big' pictures. She is right but I would need a bigger house! I shall continue painting, whatever the size, because...... well, because I can't and do not want to stop. As noted previously, when I am 100 I might be getting the hang of it!

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Covid-19 outside mainland China: update

... while passing on the disease, of course:

According to the Johns Hopkins tracker the total number of confirmed cases now approaches 78,000 of which over 600 are outside the Chinese mainland. . Of the latter, only 12 have died so far.

However, it is clear that the virus is lethal to more than East Asians. Two days ago, a couple of Iranians succumbed; and it seems they had not travelled outside their country. They died in Qom (90 miles from the capital, Tehran), and two other patients have been diagnosed there since, plus one in Arak (who happens to be a doctor from Qom), bringing the total cases to five.

Qom is a magnet for pilgrims, so there is some question as to whether piety may outweigh prudence. 20 million visitors (both domestic and foreign) come annually because it is not only a holy city but ‘the largest centre for Shiʿa scholarship in the world’. Conversely, millions of Shi’ite pilgrims travel from Iran to Iraq each year to see the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala; Iraq has now taken the precautions of suspending flights to Iran and closing their mutual border but we shall see how effective and sustained these measures will be.

And today we hear of a fatality in Italy (see below).

Here is the toll to date, in sequence, for the world outside mainland China:

(1) 02 February: a 44-year-old Chinese tourist from Wuhan, Hubei province died in hospital in Manila, the Philippines; he was ‘thought to have had other pre-existing health conditions.’

(2) 04 February: a 39-year-old Hong Kong man dies there of heart failure, having been diagnosed on 31 January with the virus. He is said to have had a ‘long-term illness.’

(3) 13 February: a woman in her eighties died in a Japanese hospital where she had been kept since February 1; her son-in law is a taxi driver and has also been confirmed infected.

(4) 15 February: an 80-year-old Chinese tourist from Hubei province died in Paris, France after weeks in hospital.

(5) 15 February: a 61-year-old male taxi driver from central Taiwan died in hospital there from Covid-19-related pneumonia and sepsis; he had a history of Hepatitis B and diabetes. Many of his fares had come from China, Macau and Hong Kong. 

(6, 7) 19 February: two Iranian citizens died in Qom, northern Iran; both were elderly and with underlying health conditions. They ‘were not known to have left Iran’ but as said above, Qom is a major religious destination for pilgrims and scholars.

(8) 19 February: a second Hong Kong victim dies there – a 70-year-old man with ‘underlying illnesses.’ He had previously visited mainland China on 22 January via the island’s border checkpoint at Lok Ma Chau.

(9) 19 February: a 63-year-old local man died in a hospital in South Korea and was diagnosed posthumously with the virus. Many new cases have been registered in the South Korean city of Daegu, where a South Korean woman is thought to have infected the congregation of a Christian sect; she is said to be in her early 60s and with no recent record of overseas travel.

(10, 11) 20 February: two Japanese citizens died in a hospital in Japan, having been taken off the ‘Diamond Princess’ cruise ship (quarantined near Yokohama) the previous week. ‘Both were in their 80s with underlying health conditions.’ The infection may have been spread by a Hong Kong resident who had briefly visited the Chinese mainland prior to boarding the ship at Yokohama on 20 January ; he disembarked at Hong Kong on January 25, reporting to a hospital on the island, where he was diagnosed with coronavirus. The ship’s itinerary from 1 December 2019 on is here: - the latest cruise was to have been 29 days long, starting in Singapore.

(12) 22 February: a 78-year-old man died in Padua, Italy. The first arrival of the virus in the country is traced to China: ‘The "index case" - or patient zero - was reported to be a 38-year-old man from Codogno who is believed to have caught the virus from a friend who had returned from China in January.’

The pattern of lethality is similar to that for ‘ordinary’ flu: Covid-19 hits the old and infirm disproportionately. That said, we also see how easily it seems to spread, and (thanks to modern communications and mass travel) how far – not only across the Far East but the Middle East, Australasia, Europe, North America, India, Egypt… So far, nothing reported from sub-Saharan Africa, or central and southern American states; but we are hardly three months into this outbreak and not all countries may as quick to diagnose cases correctly.

There is no room for complacency, as Charles Hugh Smith explains.

Friday, February 21, 2020

FRIDAY MUSIC: Caroline Shaw, by JD

Earlier this year on BBC 4 Stewart Copeland host a three part series called Adventures in Music;

These were three exceptionally good documentaries in that they didn't follow the usual formula but asked the question - "How does music work? What exactly is this thing that brings us together, moves us and binds us, communicates stories like no other art form, and which seemingly has transcendental powers?"

Among the various people Copeland spoke to in his search for the 'magic ingredient' was the American composer Caroline shaw. Perhaps a bit too unorthodox for most tastes but I thought her music was excellent!

It was also good to see a couple of very hostile commenters beneath her videos make fools of themselves by declaring their own musical qualifications and pedigree; their professional jealousy in other words!

"How do you capture the tragic, beautiful loneliness of existence, and the complete, ecstatic joy of existence?" asks Caroline Shaw. Shaw was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2013, making her the youngest ever recipient of the award. She explains in this video that music helps her tackle some of life's loftiest questions."

Thursday, February 20, 2020

This just in...

Are we off-air now?

-          Yes.

‘Cause you know what I said was all bollox, don’t you?

-          Sorry?

That stuff about ability to speak English being dog-whistle politics.

-          Yes, but surely Labour is in favour of immigration?

That was just an angle, you know the game we’re playing and you love it. Actually this points system is the best news I’ve heard since I was a kid.

-          Amazing! Why?

Think, for goodness’ sake. What’s going to happen when we can’t bring in loads of poor people to do essential services like elderly care?

-          There’ll be a shortage and old people won’t be looked after.

There’ll be a shortage and care workers’ pay will have to go up, at last. And then there’ll be a recruitment drive, more employment.

-          But healthcare costs will go up, won’t they?

And about time. Our country has been exploiting the labouring classes for far too long. Besides, yes, there might be more taxes to raise, but there’ll be more people earning enough to pay taxes too. And they’ll spend more, and create more profits and employment elsewhere.

-          Excuse me for saying it, but that sounds like right-wing economic thinking.

Right economic thinking, you mean. Why do you think Jeremy and I have always wanted us out of the EU?

-          But that wasn’t Labour policy, was it? You’ve opposed Brexit before and after the Referendum and the last General Election.

I’m surprised you don’t know the difference between policy and strategy. You know we’ve had to ride two horses in the Party, same as the Tories. Half our voters haven’t a clue, they’re teddy-huggers who really do think money grows on trees.

-          Wow, you’re a secret Tory!

Let’s get this straight. You vote Labour, don’t you?

-          Well, at the BBC we maintain impartial-

Just say yes, it’s quicker.

-          Erm…

And what do you think you’re voting for us for? You get, what, a six-figure salary? The person who lifts your poor old nan out of her bed doesn’t get a fifth of your pay, while the heaviest thing you lift is a sticky bun in the BBC canteen.

-         - Tahini wrap, actually

Never mind. Workers take care of your olds, dead cheap, so you can go clubbing and stick happy sherbet up your nose. Is that your idea of socialism?

-          Blimey, if you’re going to be like that I’m voting Tory next time.

So am I, if we can’t change our strategy, ‘cause obviously it’s failed in the North. Meanwhile, let’s stay together for the sake of the viewers, darling, shall we? Let’s do a bit more on racism next time, okay?

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

ANCIENT EGYPT: Giza revisited, by JD

The first part of this post appeared originally on Nourishing Obscurity, here:

First introduction to the Pyramids comes on the road to Giza where the hedges are all shaped accordingly.

The only thing missing from the photograph below is sound. And the sound would be beep-beep. Non stop all day everywhere you go beep-beep; not an angry blaring of horns just a quick beep-beep for the sake of it.

This is a very familiar sight. Everybody knows what they look like and we all know they are very large stone constructions but they are huge. It is not until you stand in front of them that you realise just how big they are.

At 480 feet, the Great Pyramid of Cheops (or Khufu if you prefer) is taller than any Cathedral in England. St.Paul’s in London measures 365 feet from the floor of the nave to the tip of the cross on the dome so it could easily disappear within the outline of the pyramid.

Here is a good indication of the size with people at the base and also at the entrance.
The sign sitting on the 7th course of blocks about halfway up to the entrance reads “no smoking inside the pyramid”.

I wonder what John Greaves would have thought of that; he carved the name ‘J Gravius’ in the King’s Chamber in 1637.

The limestone blocks are partially intact around the base as can be seen here. They say that if you want to see the Pyramids you just need visit Cairo’s City of the Dead where a lot of the casing stones were used for building houses and monuments.

Even more impressive was the red granite facing of the third pyramid. After all this time it still appears highly polished and the heiroglyphic characters on the face are clearly defined. The fit and finish of the stones is astonishing.

According to Herodotus it took twenty years for a force of 100,000 to build the pyramid. I heard some time ago of an American engineer who decided to calculate the time in man-hours that would be needed for the construction including all ancillary work such as quarrying, carving, hauling etc. His answer was more or less as Herodotus had said.

I may never return to Cairo but I am glad I was given the opportunity to see one of the wonders of the world.


It has been more than thirty years since I took those photos and I have 'revisited' Giza in various books I have read over the years trying to get a better understanding of the enigma.

Recently I came across this video which sparked my interest once more. It's about half an hour and starts and ends with Nikola Tesla and in between it has Graham Hancock explaining the significance of the dimensions and location of Giza and its famous pyramids.

He didn't mention that the number 432 pops up again in the mean radius of the sun - 432,000 miles: and the famous Kali Yuga of Hinduism will last 432,000 years according to Sri Yukteswar (he is on the cover of Sgt Pepper top left corner!) I'm pretty sure Graham Hancock knows all that but he wouldn't want to make things too complicated or confusing.

When I first stood in front of the pyramid I thought "that is not possible!" but there it is, so it must have been possible for somebody at some point in history. Unlike Hancock I know how to build large structures but I still have no idea how it was done. A lot of years ago a friend of mine called it "God's calling card" which is no more nor less plausible than any of the other theories I have seen and heard.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Sleepers, awoke!

When you read the term ‘woke’ these days, you assume it is to do with dizzy-headed left-wing idealists making a fuss over the things the government (Lab or Con) is happy for them to witter about – generally, sexual matters that ought to be private, equality of outcomes (well, up to a certain level in society), and the benefits system that can be used to bully the poor, subsidise workers’ wages and boost corporate profitability.

Oh, and greenery. Apparently the reason we are deindustrialising a small country whose bloated population depends on industrial trade, and turning for our power needs to solar panels that work only intermittently in a cloudy climate and windmills that have to be deactivated in a gale, is to protect ourselves against the carbonavirus, that disease which, so we are told, will be caught by all and is 100% fatal... except in the East, to whose coal-fired economies our corporations have transferred our productive capacity and from which they derive vast wealth that must be hidden in tax havens.

Let us turn from this ship of fools as they sail in search of fantasy adventures with Tintin (yep) Thunberg at the helm, Snowy yipping excitedly by her feet; for that’s not where ‘woke’ started.

Pace Wikipedia, the first time I was struck by the contemporary usage was when watching the 2008 TV series ‘Breaking Bad’. Walter White, a man who has always done the right thing, studied hard, passed lots of exams and gone into teaching, suddenly realises that life has shafted him. Underpaid for his learning – Anglos despise education – he is eking out his salary by labouring at a garage, only to be spotted and mocked by his students. His conditioning breaks and returning home, he says, ‘I am awake.’ For if you only do what you’re supposed to do, you get what you’re supposed (but not by you) to get. That word, with its ominous undertone, was like the moment in ‘The Long Ships’ when the Viking leader who has long sought a huge golden bell, disgustedly flings away the little one he finds hanging in a deserted chapel, only to have it strike the dome with a great ringing sound…

I heard a tinkle in c. 1990 when none of my life company’s excellent pension funds was hitting the 13% growth ceiling assumed by the regulator as reasonable for projections. I heard it when, post-dotcom bubble, the stockmarkets halved in 2000-2003 and yet all that happened was monetary reflation, especially in mortgages; I heard a clang when the loan-fakery blew up in 2008, Congress refused to bail out crooked banks with $700 billion, and the US Treasury Secretary ‘Hank’ Paulson ordered them to vote again and shares re-collapsed; and when, instead of financial reforms, the money-pumping continued at a far greater rate, reinflating the burst balloons of the S&P 500 and the FTSE. Again, when I read recently of the hundreds of billions of emergency overnight government lending to banks in the US ‘repo market’, rather like the old custom of desperate businesses ‘kiting’ cheques over a weekend because there wasn’t enough in their account on Friday. Nobody up there is doing the right thing, but they want you to keep calm and carry on.

The whole thing is running on tick. Fiscal conservatives wail about the levels of government debt, but that’s only half the story. If you want to see the big picture, look for the overall burden of credit in the economy, both public and private; known (in the US, at any rate) as ‘Total Credit Market Debt Outstanding’, or TCMDO; and compare it to the overall level of economic activity, aka Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Back in January 2012 McKinsey reported (page 5) that the UK’s total debt-to-GDP stood at 507% - rivalling the moribund Japan (512%).

At that time America’s TCMDO-to-GDP was merely 279%; but by the third quarter of 2019 its TCMDO had soared to $74.56 trillion. This compares with US GDP of $21.44 trillion  – so, by late last year, their total-debt-to-GDP had not fallen but risen, to around 348%. Unfortunately, the British government is rather more coy about such matters and does not publicly disclose such data on a regular basis, so I can only guess that we, too, have sunk deeper into the mire.

Worse still, debt-to GDP can deteriorate in two ways: a rise in debt, or a fall in GDP. Should there be a serious economic dislocation caused by say, a Covid-19-seized-up China, or a vindictive French Brexit trade negotiator, then we shall all find out that whatever happens to income or investments, debts remain fixed. If masses of individuals or their governments start defaulting, there will be a domino effect, and austerity may not be enough to stop it (indeed, may itself worsen GDP.)

The alternative is to pump even more money into the system, as has been happening for a long time; but possibly on an accelerating basis. So far we haven’t seen high inflation (though it is significant that almost the first act of the new 2010 ‘Conservative’ government was to stop issuing index-linked NS&I savings bonds.) One of the reasons we haven’t, is the declining velocity of money – the rate at which a pound changes hands annually. This 2018 article illustrates the general principle and trend  – the money supply is increasing, but not pushing GDP correspondingly higher. Whether capital projects like HS2 will turn things around is a moot point (look out for cheery government references to ‘job creation’ without details re limited duration), especially if the work is given to the Chinese.

It may be that a long-cycle economic downturn is unavoidable, as Irving Fisher and Nikolai Kondratiev theorised; and could be sudden, as latterly Hyman Minsky and following him the Australian economist Steve Keen have suggested (Keen would like to see a ‘debt jubilee’ to clear accounts and restart the system). Writing in 2008 before the Global Financial Crisis hit, Charles Hugh Smith forecast 2020 as the confluence of several negative trends including the passing of ‘peak energy’.

As long as there is a Welfare State, the government will have irreducible obligations (despite trying to declare the disabled and dying as fit for work) and as national earnings wane it will be increasingly difficult to balance the books. Something will give, and if there is not a debt jubilee then it will be the currency, I suppose. Already the law has changed to permit ‘bail-ins’, i.e. in another emergency, depositors’ account balances may be converted to shares in the rotten banks where they are held; but the strategy could go further, in raiding the value of money itself.

Back to gold, that ‘barbarous relic’ beloved of those who really don’t trust their rulers. Something funny is going on here, as ‘Tyler Durden’ has just noted: suddenly (in a two month period), the UK has exported a massive £12 billion-worth of gold and this has distorted official figures about the health of our economy. The Bank of England holds some 310 tonnes of gold (far less than it used to), which if pure and at current prices would be worth only around £9.3 billion, so presumably there is some other explanation. However, you may have noticed in the Daily Wail in past months, advertisements for gold coins for sale by the Royal Mint; and something you probably haven’t noticed, but rang a little gold tocsin in my head: a recent Privy Council meeting (chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg) on 6th November 2019 approved the issuance of a variety of gold coinage including a £7,000 one. Where is that gold coming from? Not from a Chinese government grateful for all the business we’ve given them. So, from stock.

What’s the thinking behind that last? Revenue-raising? Part of a long-term plan (as gold bugs suspect) to keep down the market price of gold so as not to scare the populace? Or an opportunity for those in the know and with deep pockets, to secure at least some of their wealth in advance of a looming financial crisis?

The discovery of great hoards of Anglo-Saxon gold shows how the yellow metal is no protection in the worst case; but I fear there may soon be a clapper of alarm that will jolt the middle-class poseurs out of their dreamy world-saving playing-about and make them ‘woke’ for real.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

ART: Joaquín Sorolla, by JD

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida 1863-1923 is a Spanish painter, born in Valencia, and is relatively unknown outside his native land.

He is regarded as the Spanish Impressionist and if his depiction of light is not quite as good as Monet it is certainly exceptional.

The Sorolla Museum in Madrid is well worth a visit -
it was his widow and later his son who bequeathed the house to the State.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Wine Snobbery: A Glass Half Full, by Wiggia

This title was conceived after a conversation a couple of weeks back with an  acquaintance who likes to drink and is interested in wine. He was referring to a tasting he went to at a local wine merchant's and the customer there who appeared to be blinded by wine speak and elitism; I am not fond of isms but know what he was getting at.

Anyone who has read my articles on wine realises I do enjoy it and the whole history of wine, how it is made, the grapes used etc etc. It is a hobby that I enjoy as I do talking about it. Many talk of their love of wine, I certainly have loved a few great bottles in my time but love ! As in all-consuming, no; others may see themselves differently. It is all a matter of perspective, which brings us back to the conversation I had with this fellow drinker.

In many people's eyes wine does invoke this image of someone slathering over a glass and using terms of endearment more suited to something else that you would only use in private ! There is a whole lexicon of strange words and phrases used to describe wine. Many by leading wine critics are pure fantasy, used to convey a sense of superiority in these matters. Terms that suppose the human faculties can discern inert substances in wine are plainly ludicrous but are used nonetheless in the attempt to make that critic's review stand out from the mob; tasting notes by their nature are limited and therefore repeated, hence this fantasy-speak.

Still, all this this quite correctly conveys to an outsider the impression that there is an awful lot of snobbery and elitism within the wine circle.

If anyone goes onto a wine blog - and there are many - there are reams of quotes and statements supporting this view about wine; which is strange in a world that is dominated by supermarket wine buyers who couldn’t give a monkey's what some double-barrelled wine critic wrote about their plonk, all they care is it fits the budget and fulfils their taste requirements.

So does this snobbery and elitism exist. To a large degree yes, even now. The forums for wine drinkers show this trait all too well: whole threads become more than 'this is what I drank last night', they become 'what I drank last night was more expensive and rarer than that which you drank', that old world wineries are the only place to buy ‘fine’ wines from and the new world is fermented gnat's piss; and many in direct conversation will do the same. This moment scotched that thinking some time back, yet many still believe……..

There is absolutely nothing wrong in people who have the spare income to spend it in a way they enjoy and if that means a £500 or more bottle of wine then that is their choice, but often the writing on the same wine belies the truth about it. Whatever the cost, whatever grand name on the label, whatever the vintage, you still have to like it and we all have different tastes, so there is no greatest or there shouldn’t be. Wine is a food. Some will love a style, others will wrinkle their noses and reject it, it is that simple; but not for a wine snob, who will defend his bad bottle with a litany of excuses, many invalid. None, or few, seem capable of saying 'that was bloody awful' or simply 'I didn’t like it', they will have a whole lexicon to use of words that describe their disappointment and how the next bottle will be wonderful.

The correlation in people's minds of qulity to price is shown here, nothing new in this but it does show how you can fool some of the people...

'Great wine' is a much-used term usually attached to a tasting of a top-rated Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Barolo et al., but a great wine is one you enjoy whatever the provenance or price. I myself have been fortunate to drink some very high-ranking wines and many I have enjoyed; the best are memorable, but they represent a fraction of what is out there and among the lesser lights are bottles that have brought equal enjoyment. Thinking about the price clouds your judgement as in the videos here, it really does; yet the wine snob will never admit to enjoying a cheap wine, even if it is good.
Victoria Beckham was quoted as saying she would never drink a wine under £10 a bottle. Well, she doesn’t have to, but the assertion was it would be a poor wine, and that is simply not true: many £10-and-up bottles are not that good either and many even more expensive bottles have proved a let-down.

The wine snob will never ever admit to drinking anything popular. The rise in popularity in a grape variety will coincide with the wine snob deriding it and promoting an unheard-of wine from an unheard-of village made under a waning moon and a thunderstorm; these things bring great kudos to wine snobs and they will promote the same, until they have to move on because the unheard-of wine has become ‘popular’.

I read an allied thread on a wine forum where someone said in effect you had to take such and such courses on wine to be able to appreciate the finer points, implying those who didn’t were somehow inferior in their take on a wine - “how could they possibly know?” If that is not wine snobbery I don’t know what is. I have never taken a wine course. Would I? Not now; a basic course is not a bad thing for a beginner to simply understand the basics, but I am too old and it would add little, at great cost, to what I have picked up over decades of consuming, reading, travelling, tasting etc. What more do I need? Yet so many of those who take these courses love to tell how, hundreds of pounds lighter and now on Diploma level or whatever, they are more knowledgable than those who have not taken that route and they all clap like seals when one of their soulmates achieves a pass. Wine drinking is a pleasant pastime, not a civil service exam - and do they go on!

You can add to the swot, the idolator: the drinker who believes that certain wine makers deserve sainthood, so wonderful are their products and so dedicated are they to their winemaking that they deserve special status. The bottom line is, they are farmers making a product for consumption by the public. Yes, many enjoy what they do for a living, as with others in life in different occupations, but it is a commercial enterprise, and some are better at it than others. It is that simple, whether it is the small village winery or the giant conglomerates.

But you would never believe that if you heard the wine snob speaking: they and the whole wine world belongs to them and their self-belief.

Even the storage of wine becomes the cellar-owner's world of right and wrong. If you wish to store decent wine for long periods then a cellar with a fairly constant temperature is a plus. As very few people own a cellar now the wine snob will buy a wine storage cooler and if they really believe all the hype then it will be the one with two or even three different temperature zones for all those wine type variations. That is, of course, only if you believe this, which is mainly twaddle: it has been scientifically shown that all wines will survive quite a large temperature fluctuation with no ill effects. Serious wine snobs will talk about various serious faults a wine can develop if you don’t have the perfect storage facility. Most of these faults are one-in-a-thousand cases: I have never suffered any of them. You are far more likely to have a faulty bottle because of a manufacturing fault, dodgy cork or some form of taint getting into it. For all but the wine snob, a place under the stairs will be adequate in most cases, and being an expensive wine will not alter how it reacts to heat or cold.

Many years ago I went to a wine tasting put on locally by a very good wine merchant. It was only because it was local that I bothered to go. On arrival there were about 50  people already tasting the wines on three long joined tables in the shape of a horseshoe. We started out behind two or three couples armed with notepads and clipboards to make notes of the tasted wines. For me, if I liked a couple of wines I was well capable of remembering them and cannot see the point on notes of a raft of wines I don’t like, but each to his own.

We got about half way round and I had heard the wine-speak of the group ahead as they scribbled their notes, and as we reached roughly the halfway point they all tried a well-known red wine, mumbled approvingly, scribbled and moved on. I poured a tasting measure, and smelt and tasted, and the wine was very obviously off; I called one of the organisers over who agreed immediately, took the bottle away and changed it. Now you might say 'clever dick', but the truth was they were wine snobs in front of us trying to impress each other with their knowledge of wine but could not tell a totally flawed/awful bottle.

There are a whole list of things that divide the wine snob from the wine geek. Geeks are wine drinkers obsessed with vineyards, latitude, soil and obscurity etc.; they can also bore the arse off you given the opportunity, but they are not snobs.

Snobs obsess about the glass they use, unless it is Riedel or similar, very costly and very easy to break; no wine can be drunk and enjoyed without them. They actually believe this. They buy expensive wines and collect to such a degree that because the drinking ‘window’ is so far in the future their collection just grows and grows, never to be drunk, just admired.

If there is one item that epitomises the wine snob it is the corkscrew. The wine snob only ever uses the “waiter's friend” or sommelier's corkscrew; for some reason it has come to distinguish the ‘serious’ wine drinker from the others. Its only real value is the space it uses and for wine waiters that is why it is used: it fits in the pocket. However, for the wine snob, difficulty in learning to use it is points gained; all other corkscrews are for amateurs, despite the fact I have used a winged corkscrew for over thirty years that has never failed to extract a cork other than a couple that simply crumbled to nothing. That really is of no consequence to the wine snob: a waiter's friend it has to be, or nothing.
Naturally it follows that the obsession with removing a cork ‘correctly’ means that any bottle fitted with a screw cap is instantly fit only for the proles: no self-respecting wine snob would entertain a bottle with a screw cap on the table, God forbid; even the devil's spawn, a non-100%-natural cork, isn’t on the same level of evil; the mere thought of not being able to show your skills learnt over many years with the waiter's friend is too much to bear.

The ability to swirl everything, tea, coffee, water like a nervous tic is a skill well-learned by the WS. It is a forerunner to over-emphasised sniffing; side-on gives you extra bonus points, and slurping with much exaggerated jowel movements.

All wines without exception have to be decanted, sometimes for days, this goes with the 'all must be kept forever' syndrome before it is ready to drink, often to the extent that a case of wine will be opened and bottles drunk at strategic points in time, none of which are the correct time. Is the correct time for the perfect bottle ever reached? Probably not, such is the snobbery about drinking windows, the endless imagined aromas and tastes and the vocabulary. This is a true note by a wine reviewer heard at a tasting regarding two different Champagnes: “ 'One can always tell Krug from Roederer,' he said, 'by the sound of the bubbles.'  Give me strength, if ever there was a phrase to differentiate between the drinker and the wine snob, that just about takes the biscuit.

Things are not as obviously elitist in the wine world as in years gone by, when any self-respecting wine merchant had staff that all wore tweed jackets, bow ties and looked down on the customer if he didn’t fit a certain profile with that something-on-the-sole-of-my-shoe look, and many did.

More importantly, I have hardly ever met a wine-maker with that same attitude. Even the more famous ones have all been down to earth and would engage about their wines with you without any silly embellishments. As the late Vincent Leflaive said at a dinner and tasting of his sublime but hugely expensive white Burgundies after being questioned by a diner on the style of his wines vis-a-vis someone else's: “If you don’t like them that way, don’t buy them.” It really is that simple.