Sunday, May 31, 2020

Sunday morning music

We've heard the music of Ian Anderson and his group Jethro Tull on many occasions in these pages.  This morning I'd like to introduce a recording of which many Tull fans may never have heard.

Back in 2017, Ian Anderson produced an album titled "Jethro Tull: The String Quartets".

He partnered with John O'Hara and the Carducci String Quartet to produce chamber music versions of many classic Tull tunes.  I rather like it, and I hope you will too.

To start off, here's a medley of two very early Tull tunes:  "Sossity: You're a Woman" (from the album "Benefit") and "Reasons for Waiting" (from the album "Stand Up").

Next, a medley of "Songs from the Wood" and "Heavy Horses".

And finally, no Tull project would be complete without some form of "Aqualung" - in this case, "Aquafugue".

The entire album is enjoyable, particularly if you like both classical and rock music.


Saturday, May 30, 2020

Saturday Snippet: The weaker sex (hippopotamus version)

We've encountered the late naturalist Gerald Durrell on more than one occasion in these pages.  I thought it was time for another extract from one of his many books.  This one's from "A Zoo in my Luggage", an account of his second visit to Bafut in what was then British Cameroon (today part of the modern state of Cameroon), to collect animals for what would become his own zoo, dedicated to the conservation and preservation of threatened and endangered species.

On its way to Bafut, the expedition stopped over in the town of Mamfe to collect animals.  A trip to investigate a report of a very large python turned into a riverine adventure.

To reach the area of country in which our quarry was waiting, we had to go down the hill and cross the river by the ferry, a large, banana-shaped canoe which appeared to have been constructed about three centuries ago, and to have been deteriorating slowly ever since. It was paddled by a very old man who looked in immediate danger of dying of a heart attack, and he was accompanied by a small boy whose job it was to bale out. This was something of an unequal struggle, for the boy had a small rusty tin for the job, while the sides of the canoe were as watertight as a colander. Inevitably, by the time one reached the opposite bank one was sitting in about six inches of water. When we arrived with our equipment on the water-worn steps in the granite cliff that formed the landing-stage, we found the ferry was at the opposite shore, so while Ben, Agustine and the enormous African (whom we had christened Gargantua) lifted their voices and roared at the ferryman to return with all speed, Bob and I squatted in the shade and watched the usual crowd of Mamfe people bathing and washing in the brown waters below.

Swarms of small boys leapt shrieking off the cliffs and splashed into the water, and then shot to the surface again, their palms and the soles of their feet gleaming shell pink, their bodies like polished chocolate. The girls, more demure, bathed in their sarongs, only to emerge from the water with the cloth clinging to their bodies so tightly that it left nothing to the imagination. One small toddler, who could not have been more than five or six, made his way carefully down the cliff, his tongue protruding with concentration, carrying on his head an enormous water-jar. On reaching the edge of the water he did not pause to remove the jar from his head, or to take off his sarong. He walked straight into the water and waded slowly and determinedly out into the river until he completely disappeared; only the jar could be seen moving mysteriously along the surface of the water. At length this too vanished. There was a moment’s pause, and then the jar reappeared, this time moving shorewards, and eventually, beneath it, the boy’s head bobbed up. He gave a tremendous snort to expel the air from his lungs, and then struggled grimly towards the beach, the now brimming jar on his head. When he reached the shore he edged the jar carefully on to a ledge of rock, and then re-entered the water, still wearing his sarong. From some intricate fold in his garment he produced a small fragment of Lifebuoy soap, and proceeded to rub it all over himself and the sarong with complete impartiality. Presently, when he had worked up such a lather all over himself that he looked like an animated pink snowman, he ducked beneath the surface to wash off the soap, waded ashore, settled the jar once more on his head and slowly climbed the cliff and disappeared. It was the perfect example of the African application of time-and-motion study.

By this time the ferry had arrived, and Ben and Agustine were arguing hotly with its aged occupant. Instead of taking us straight across the river, they wanted him to paddle us about half a mile upstream to a large sandbank. This would save us having to walk about a mile along the bank to reach the path that led to the forest. The old man appeared to be singularly obstinate about the proposal.

‘What’s the matter with him, Ben?’ I inquired.

‘Eh! Dis na foolish man, sah,’ said Ben, turning to me in exasperation, ‘’e no agree for take us for up de river.’

‘Why you no agree, my friend?’ I asked the old man. ‘If you go take us I go pay you more money and I go dash [tip] you.’

‘Masa,’ said the old man firmly, ‘dis na my boat, and if I go lose um I no fit catch money again … I no get chop for my belly … I no get one-one penny.’

‘But how you go lose you boat?’ I asked in amazement, for I knew this strip of river and there were no rapids or bad currents along it.

‘Ipopo, Masa,’ explained the old man.

I stared at the ferryman, wondering what on earth he was talking about. Was Ipopo perhaps some powerful local juju I had not come across before?

‘Dis Ipopo,’ I asked soothingly, ‘which side ’e live?’

‘Wah! Masa never see um?’ asked the old man in astonishment. ‘’E dere dere for water close to D.O.’s [District Officer's] house … ’e big like so-so motor … ’e de holla … ’e de get power too much.’

‘What’s he talking about?’ asked Bob in bewilderment.

And suddenly it dawned on me. ‘He’s talking about the hippo herd in the river below the D.O.’s house,’ I explained, ‘but it’s such a novel abbreviation of the word that he had me foxed for a moment.’

‘Does he think they’re dangerous?’

‘Apparently, though I can’t think why. They were perfectly placid last time I was here.’

‘Well, I hope they’re still placid,’ said Bob.

I turned to the old man again. ‘Listen, my friend. If you go take us for up dis water, I go pay you six shilling and I go dash you cigarette, eh? And if sometime dis ipopo go damage dis your boat I go pay for new one, you hear?’

‘I hear, sah.’

‘You agree?’

‘I agree, sah,’ said the old man, avarice struggling with caution. We progressed slowly upstream, squatting in half an inch of water in the belly of the canoe.

‘I suppose they can’t really be dangerous,’ said Bob casually, trailing his hand nonchalantly in the water.

‘When I was here last I used to go up to within thirty feet of them in a canoe and take photographs,’ I said.

‘Dis ipopo get strong head now, sah,’ said Ben tactlessly. ‘Two months pass dey kill three men and break two boats.’

‘That’s a comforting thought,’ said Bob.

Ahead of us the brown waters were broken in many places by rocks. At any other time they would have looked exactly like rocks but now each one looked exactly like the head of a hippo, a cunning, maniacal hippo, lurking in the dark waters, awaiting our approach. Ben, presumably remembering his tale of daring with the bush-cow, attempted to whistle, but it was a feeble effort, and I noticed that he scanned the waters ahead anxiously. After all, a hippo that has developed the habit of attacking canoes gets a taste for it, like a man-eating tiger, and will go out of his way to be unpleasant, apparently regarding it as a sport. I was not feeling in the mood for gambolling in twenty feet of murky water with half a ton of sadistic hippo.

The old man, I noticed, was keeping our craft well into the bank, twisting and turning so that we were, as far as possible, always in shallow water. The cliff here was steep, but well supplied with footholds in case of emergency, for the rocks lay folded in great layers like untidy piles of fossilized magazines, overgrown with greenery. The trees that grew on top of the cliffs spread their branches well out over the water, so that we travelled in a series of fish-like jerks up a tunnel of shade, startling the occasional kingfisher that whizzed across our bows like a vivid blue shooting-star, or a black-and-white wattled plover that flapped away upstream, tittering imbecilically to itself, with its feet grazing the water, and long yellow wattles flapping absurdly on each side of its beak.

Gradually we rounded the bend of the river, and there, about three hundred yards ahead of us on the opposite shore, lay the white bulk of the sandbank, frilled with ripples. The old man gave a grunt of relief at the sight, and started to paddle more swiftly.

‘Nearly there,’ I said gaily, ‘and not a hippo in sight.’

The words were hardly out of my mouth when a rock we were passing some fifteen feet away suddenly rose out of the water and gazed at us with bulbous astonished eyes, snorting out two slender fountains of spray, like a miniature whale.

Fortunately, our gallant crew resisted the impulse to leap out of the canoe en masse and swim for the bank. The old man drew in his breath with a sharp hiss, and dug his paddle deep into the water, so that the canoe pulled up short in a swirl and clop of bubbles. Then we sat and stared at the hippo, and the hippo sat and stared at us. Of the two, the hippo seemed the more astonished. The chubby, pink-grey face floated on the surface of the water like a disembodied head at a séance. The great eyes stared at us with the innocent appraisal of a baby. The ears flicked back and forth, as if waving to us. The hippo sighed deeply and moved a few feet nearer, still looking at us with wide-eyed innocence. Then, suddenly, Agustine let out a shrill whoop that made us all jump and nearly upset the canoe. We shushed him furiously, while the hippo continued its scrutiny of us unabashed.

‘No de fear,’ said Agustine in a loud voice, ‘na woman.’

He seized the paddle from the old man’s reluctant grasp, and proceeded to beat on the water with the blade, sending up a shower of spray. The hippo opened its mouth in a gigantic yawn to display a length of tooth that had to be seen to be believed. Then, suddenly, and with apparently no muscular effort, the great head sank beneath the surface. There was a moment’s pause, during which we were all convinced that the beast was ploughing through the water somewhere directly beneath us, then the head rose to the surface again, this time, to our relief, about twenty yards up-river. It snorted out two more jets of spray, waggled its ears seductively and sank again, only to reappear in a moment or so still farther upstream. The old man grunted and retrieved his paddle from Agustine.

‘Agustine, why you do dat foolish ting?’ I asked in what I hoped was a steady and trenchant tone of voice.

‘Sah, dat ipopo no be man … na woman dat,’ Agustine explained, hurt by my lack of faith in him.

‘How you know?’ I demanded.

‘Masa, I savvay all dis ipopo for dis water,’ he explained, ‘dis one na woman. Ef na man ipopo ’e go chop us one time. But dis woman one no get strong head like ’e husband.’

‘Well, thank God for the weaker sex,’ I said to Bob, as the old man, galvanized into activity, sent the canoe shooting diagonally across the river, so that it ground on to the sandbank in a shower of pebbles.

Lest you think the boatman's caution was unwarranted, consider that hippo are among the most dangerous animals on the African continent.  They routinely kill hundreds of people every year.  Here's a brief video of a hippo charging a boat on the Chobe River in Botswana (an area I used to know) in 2015.  He wasn't bluffing, either!

Far too many people have a mental image of hippos as the miniskirt-wearing dancers in Disney's Fantasia.

That image couldn't be further from the truth!  As I've noted before, if you see a hippo "yawning" . . . that's not a yawn!


Friday, May 29, 2020

Walmart reads the signs of the times

I was initially puzzled to read about a tie-up between Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, and thredUP, a San Francisco-based used clothing reseller.  However, Barron's put it in perspective.

Walmart is taking a new tack in its effort to expand in e-commerce.

The company said this week that it formed a partnership with the clothing reseller ThredUp in a move that will see Walmart’s website offer secondhand clothing. The giant retailer will take a cut of the revenue.

Barron’s has written before about how ThredUp hopes to capitalize on a number of trends in the industry, from the treasure-hunt mentality that has fueled off-price retailers to millennials’ desire to shop more sustainably. We’ve also noted how Walmart has been willing to spend to boost its online presence in clothing, buying up brands like Modcloth and to experiment with new ways to reach consumers.

. . .

The latest deal with ThredUp isn’t an acquisition. It will allow ThredUp products to appear on Walmart’s website, with Walmart providing free shipping for purchases over $35 and receiving a share of the sales.

Paying Walmart a commission seems like a reasonable trade-off for ThredUp, given that the partnership will give it access to a huge new audience.

Yet Walmart could also benefit from the deal, as it will have a large number of brands added to its site and get a piece of the preowned clothing market. Instead of making a risky acquisition, Walmart is mimicking, offering access to its site to a third-party seller.

There's more at the link.

What we're seeing is the emergence of online shopping malls.  In a physical shopping mall, people go "to the mall" to shop at an anchor tenant - a big store.  As they go to and from it, or relax with a snack in the food court, they see and are attracted to other stores in the same location.  The big stores attract customers to the small ones.  Online, customers go to or because they know they can get most of what they need there.  If, in the process, they can also be exposed to other businesses, and find interesting products there, they'll do their shopping through the main site, which gets a cut of the revenues from such transactions.  Ergo:  an online shopping mall.

I think we'll see more and more of this in future.  The big e-commerce sites basically have a lock on the market right now.  Smaller businesses would have a torrid time of it trying to break such a stranglehold from outside.  Therefore, as the old saying goes, "If you can't beat them, join them".

This may have an impact on independent authors and their books, too.  Right now, that market is owned by, which has made itself all but indispensable to most indie authors and publishers.  If another retailer such as Walmart can offer an alternative online home for them, with terms and conditions at least as good (if not better) than Amazon's and comparable market penetration, perhaps with better advertising and publicity opportunities, that might open up the market to more competition.  That'll be good for writers - and it can't be a bad thing for readers, either.


How is it possible for people to be this stupid?

I'm not on Facebook or similar services, so I appear to have missed the latest trend among some gun-owners (for which I'm devoutly grateful!).  However, Vice has enlightened me.

Gun people are taking pictures of themselves aiming weapons at their dicks. The safety is off, their finger hovers on the trigger, and the barrel of the weapon is pointed straight at their genitals . . . pointing a gun at your penis has . . . everything to do with ironically mocking basic safety in gun culture. The trend is about a year old and it was born in the fires of Facebook’s gun groups. On one side are responsible gun owners, on the other is a group of men aiming a deadly weapon at their dicks to prove a point that they can only vaguely explain.

Like with any other fandom, there’s levels to gun culture. In the online gun community there are "normies" and "fudds." Normies cover a range of people, anyone from a basic handgun owner to the completely uninitiated. Fudds—as in Bugs Bunny hunter Elmer Fudd—are the old heads, weirdos, and dedicated gun nuts. Some fudds hate normies and the way normies talk about guns. Even the normies who know their way around a firearm.

A chief complaint among fudds is the normie’s devotion to safety, typically manifested as knee-jerk praise of trigger discipline. For the uninitiated, watching trigger discipline refers to the act of keeping your finger off the trigger of a firearm until you’re ready to fire the weapon. It’s a safety basic, along with never pointing a gun at anyone or anything you don’t intend to harm, and always assuming a gun is loaded. Trigger and muzzle discipline will tell you a lot about a person holding a firearm. Typically, if they keep the muzzle away from the camera and their finger off the trigger—even while holding the grip—they know their way around a weapon.

. . .

To combat this apparent scourge of responsible gun ownership, some fudds have taken to posting pictures of themselves pointing allegedly loaded weapons at their own dicks, with their finger on the trigger. If this doesn’t make sense to you, you’re not alone.

There's more at the link.

All I can say is, I want nothing to do with idiots who behave like that.  If they can behave so stupidly, they're dangerous to be around.  They should stay as far away from me as possible, thank you very much!  I certainly won't be numbering them among my friends;  and if any of my friends were to behave that way, they wouldn't remain my friends any longer than it took for me to find out.  As Einstein observed, "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."  They perfectly illustrate his point by their actions.

However, I don't want them to stop.  In fact, I want them to make sure their guns are loaded, then carry right on behaving like that.  You see, that way, sooner or later (hopefully the former), they're going to shoot off the appendages for which they so clearly no longer have any rational use.  That done, they won't be reproducing more of their kind to plague the rest of us!

Idiots . . . blithering . . . one each . . . sheesh!!!


Minneapolis: the cowardice of the city authorities

I'm sure we've all seen images of the rioting and destruction in Minneapolis following the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police there.  I won't bother to reproduce any here.

I have no problem with protests against the actions of police in Mr. Floyd's death.  If I were living in or near Minneapolis, I'd take part in them!  On the basis of video evidence, I have no hesitation in labeling it police malfeasance, at the very least.  There should be (and I hope there will be) legal consequences for all concerned.  However, when the protestors start behaving like thugs and criminals, that crosses a line just as clearly as the one the police crossed in dealing with Mr. Floyd.  The protestors make themselves criminals too.

I can't understand how the city authorities in Minneapolis are allowing this anarchy to continue.  In northern Texas, I know for sure that every small business would have its owner(s) and/or employees deployed outside with firearms in the event of similar trouble here - and they wouldn't hesitate to use their guns if necessary in defense of their property.  They're entirely within their rights to do so.  Many of their customers would join them to help out.  However, that doesn't appear to be the case in Minneapolis, where business owners are cowering at home, relying on the police to protect their property - and the police are conspicuous by their absence.

This abdication of authority and responsibility seems to be a pattern in that part of the world, judging by earlier reports.  It's a license for anarchy.  Unless it's stopped, and the authorities do their job, Minneapolis may become - perhaps already is - ungovernable.  The current behavior of its police force, letting the riots continue without actively moving to stop them, appears to be nothing less than an acknowledgment of that reality.  I can only assume their behavior is the result of orders from the city authorities, which means that the latter are equally culpable.

If that's the case, I think - I hope! - that an increasing number of Minneapolis residents will take matters into their own hands, and start striking back at the anarchists and criminals and thugs who currently appear to rule their streets and business districts.  If I were living there, I'd be among them.  If police fail to keep the peace, then it's up to us to do so in our own neighborhoods and towns.  If police have no duty to protect individual citizens, as the Supreme Court has ruled, then citizens most certainly have the right to protect themselves and their property.  That's one of the primary justifications for the Second Amendment to the United States constitution.

If the authorities can't be trusted to stop this sort of anarchy, why should they be trusted to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, or business and commerce, or anything else?  Right now, Minneapolis doesn't appear to have a city government at all.  Will its residents do something about that at the next elections?  I hope so . . . but as Joseph de Maistre famously said, every nation gets the government it deserves.  I guess that applies to every city, too.  I just can't figure out how Minneapolis became such a nasty place as to deserve the government it's got!


Thursday, May 28, 2020

Shakespeare's influence on the things we say

I was interested to find this graphic on MeWe the other day.

I knew of Shakespeare's immense influence on the English language, of course, but it's intriguing to see how many expressions that we take for granted can be found in his plays and verse.  Without him, expressing ourselves would be much more difficult.


The vulnerable links in our economic chain

In one sense, I suppose we should actually be grateful to the coronavirus pandemic for the way it's highlighted how our economy has been structured around a series of assumptions, which in turn have driven decisions made to implement those assumptions.  The whole house of cards is predicated on nothing disturbing the arrangements thus made.  Throw a wild card into the equation, and massive disruption ensues - and COVID-19 has been one heck of a wild card!

Let me illustrate with a few examples.  Nobody in their right mind would argue that food safety is unimportant.  Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle", serialized in 1905 and published in book form the following year, exposed the appalling conditions in Chicago's meat-packing industry, leading to the establishment of what we know today as the Food and Drug Administration.  This regulates the food and drug industries, their methods of production, the safety of their products, etc.  In order to make such control easier, it was advantageous for many smaller plants to be consolidated into fewer, larger ones, so that fewer inspectors could supervise and control processing and production.  Over time, this consolidation increased, particularly as it became more and more expensive to attract and retain sufficient inspectors with the specialized knowledge and qualifications needed to oversee operations.

Today, there are relatively few meat-processing plants, and those that exist tend to be very large.  Cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry, etc. are brought to them over long distances for processing.  When these plants were hit by COVID-19 infections and closed, consumer shortages inevitably resulted, since there was nowhere else to take the animals for processing.  Because they could not be slaughtered, their numbers increased very rapidly, augmented by ongoing production on the "factory farms" that feed animals into the system on a regular basis.  The result has been the euthanasia of literally millions of animals and birds, and the disposal of their carcasses in landfills - even while consumers were having to make do with a more limited selection and lower quantities of meat available in stores.  Farmers and processors have lost tens of millions of dollars, all because the system was set up for massively large-scale processing in relatively few plants.  A more distributed system, with a lot more smaller plants situated closer to the farms, would probably have been less hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and supplies would probably have been maintained at a more stable level.

Another example is "just-in-time" manufacturing.  In the name of efficiency and the most productive application of capital, factories have largely been set up to keep minimal stocks of their input components (raw materials, parts, etc.) on hand.  They receive them "just in time" to use them on the production line.  (This has been reinforced by so-called "inventory taxes" levied by some states.  Where these are applied, it actually costs businesses money to keep large stocks of inventory, rather than move it in and out as quickly as possible.)  As a result, the factory-to-consumer pipeline is a high-volume, low-reserve proposition.  Goods move from factory, to distributor, to store, to consumer on a day-by-day basis.  There are no major reserves anywhere, so that a breakdown in that chain of movement inevitably results in shortages downstream of the break within a very short time.  We saw this earlier in the pandemic, where auto factories shut down within a couple of weeks of critical supplies of parts being interrupted.  It's since spread to almost every high-technology industry.

That, in turn, has been made worse by the global supply chain.  In the name of saving money on wages, buildings and other production costs, many companies shifted production of their components and finished products to lower-cost countries.  China, in particular, has benefited from this over the past few decades.  When manufacturing in those countries, and/or shipping of their production from source to market, was affected by the pandemic, supplies already on hand dried up fast, leaving chronic shortages that are still plaguing us.  (The availability of personal protective equipment for hospital personnel, such as masks, gloves, gowns, etc., is a well-known example.)

The question now becomes:  should our production and distribution systems, facilities and practices be revised in the light of the pandemic?  This seems like an obvious solution to many people - but it will involve massive expense.  To set up new factories in our own country, and have many smaller facilities rather than fewer, larger ones, and keep reserves of products in case of disruptions . . . we're talking billions, probably trillions of dollars in the short to medium term to accomplish those changes.  They may be desirable, and offer the only practical alternative to what we have at present;  but if we can't afford them, they're going to remain a pipe-dream.  What's more, if private enterprise is expected to accomplish all that on its own, it'll soak up a vast amount of money - something those who own the money will resist, because it'll take profits out of their pockets.  Also, countries where our products are presently made will do everything in their power to keep their factories open.  They may reduce their prices so much that it's uneconomical to make goods anywhere else, or impose economic sanctions to make the cost of moving production much higher than it would otherwise have been.  (China is taking all those steps at present, and being very unpleasant to countries that resist its pressures.)

We're in an "irresistible force meets immovable object" moment here.  What will the outcome be?  Nobody knows right now.  The only thing we can be sure of is that disruptions are likely to continue.

The current shape of our economy has proved to be inadequate to cope with a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.  We can reshape it to be more flexible and responsive, but only at a very high cost.  Are we willing to pay that, as a society?  Are the owners of current means of production willing to forgo short-term profit to change the way they do business, in the hope of long-term stability of production?  Are our politicians willing to forgo short-term tax money (particularly inventory taxes), and provide tax credits, in order to make it easier and more affordable for businesses to change their methods of production?

Nobody knows the answers to those questions right now.  What we do have is a stark choice between a centrally managed economy (the socialist ideal) and a free-market one, where businesses decide for themselves how to change and the market tells them (by voting with its wallet) whether they've made good choices or bad.  Given government ineptitude in handling the coronavirus pandemic, I know which option I prefer.

What about individuals and families?  Each of us needs to take these things into account in planning for our own future.  We should determine what our "essentials" are - the things that we really need to have on hand to cater for what's important to us.  Examples:
  • We need a sound, reliable basic food supply.  It's not a bad idea for every family to have at least one month's food in reserve (what my wife calls a "deep pantry") in case of shortages or emergency.  I prefer a three-month supply, and some people try to keep a year or more's food on hand.
  • If we rely on a vehicle for transportation, we should consider keeping basic consumables - oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, filters, belts, etc. - on hand, so that if there's any disruption in factory supplies, we can keep it operating for at least a few months.  A few tools to allow us to change fluids and do other basic maintenance would not be amiss, either.  Also, we should probably be proactive in changing tires, shock-absorbers, etc. before they actually wear out, so that we can be sure they'll have a reasonable useful life if supplies of replacement components are disrupted.
  • If we have particular interests, sports or hobbies, how about keeping enough reserve supplies that we can continue with them during interruptions?  For example, I enjoy the shooting sports.  I've made sure that I have a decent reserve supply of ammunition, so that in a sudden shortage (such as we're currently experiencing, and which looks set fair to continue for at least months, if not years) I can continue to enjoy my hobby.
  • What about clothing?  Nobody can stock a complete spare wardrobe, but if you have specific needs - business clothing for office wear, or workshop clothing for blue-collar workers, etc. - there's no harm in keeping a small reserve supply of it, particularly safety gear such as work boots, head and eye protection, and so on.  That way, a shortage of supply won't prevent you working, or be embarrassing if you have to wear visibly old, worn-out clothing.
  • We live in an electrically powered world.  How many of our essential items of equipment rely on batteries?  Do we have adequate stocks of spare batteries?  What if we suffer local brownouts or blackouts if the electricity supply is cut off due to a lack of spare parts?  Do we have emergency measures (e.g. battery powered flashlights or lanterns) in place?  What about recharging things like cellphones, tablets, laptop computers, etc.?  A small generator (or, at the very least, a solar charger) might well be regarded as an indispensable accessory today.  If we have well-stocked freezers, it's doubly so.

Those are just a few ideas.  If you have more, please share them with us in Comments.


Unexpected airport traffic

I had to smile at reports that three deer had a close encounter with Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter aircraft at RAF Coningsby recently.

Cute, I suppose, but animals on the runways and taxiways can be a real hazard.  In flying around Africa for many years, I grew used to pilots of smaller aircraft (from 40-50 seat regional airliners to small 4- or 6-seat puddle-jumpers) having to "buzz" over the runway at very low altitude, to scare off animals grazing or resting there.  Larger animals (of which Africa has a gracious plenty) would often be so used to this that they'd ignore the nasty buzzing creatures overhead, and go right on doing whatever they were doing.  Only when the pilot was absolutely sure that there were no animals within "hazard range" could he proceed - and even then, a sudden unexpected run by an animal could lead to disaster.  It's a not uncommon occurrence.

Miss D. assures me that the same thing has been known to happen in Alaska, where she learned to fly.  She says even larger airliners, like Boeing 737's, sometimes have to "clear the runway" at more remote airports in that state before they can touch down.  Apparently polar bears regard small aircraft filled with people in the same way that we'd regard a tin filled with delicious chunks of meat.  Not a comforting thought, that!

I wonder how a jet fighter pilot in England would react to critters like that on the runway?


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Sometimes the jokes write themselves . . .

I had to do a double-take at this headline:

I've heard about the dick-tates of fashion, but I never expected them to go to that extreme!


The real peril behind vote-by-mail

Tucker Carlson puts it into a short, concise segment.  This is a "must-see" if you're to understand why certain political parties, pressure groups and influencers are trying to promote universal vote-by-mail as a "solution" to the coronavirus pandemic and the risks it poses.

I think he's right.  If this pressure succeeds, you can effectively say goodbye to democracy in the USA.


Pun of the week

From Stephan Pastis, who likes puns almost as much as I do.  Click the image for a larger view at the "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip Web page.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The man who put the hole in the donut

I was intrigued to learn the history behind the hole in the donut.

Captain Gregory, 85, lived at the Sailor’s Snug Harbor in Quincy, Mass. His fame as the inventor of the modern donut had spread, and the Washington Post interviewed him in a story published March 26, 1916.

He told the reporter he discovered the donut hole when he worked as a 16-year-old crewman on a lime-trading schooner.

“Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted,” he said. “I don’t think we called them donuts then–they was just ‘fried cakes’ and ‘twisters.’ Well, sir, they used to fry all right around the edges, but when you had the edges done the insides was all raw dough. And the twisters used to sop up all the grease just where they bent, and they were tough on the digestion.”

He asked himself if a space inside the dough would solve the difficulty – and then came the great inspiration.

“I took the cover off the ship’s tin pepper box, and—I cut into the middle of that donut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes!”

Gregory, born in 1832, would have had his insight around 1858. According to the New York Times, he rose to second mate at 19, mate at 21 and master mariner at 25. He sailed in all kinds of vessels from the lime coaster to a full-rigged ship.

But the donut made him famous. He had asked a tinsmith to fabricate a donut cutter for him, and soon, reported the Times, ‘cooks everywhere had adopted it.’

There's more at the link.

The dates in the article don't quite add up.  If Gregory had "invented" the donut hole at the age of 16, it would have been in 1848, not 1858.  Nevertheless, it's an amusing anecdote, and quite possibly true, given that no alternative explanation for the donut hole has ever been advanced.

The Smithsonian Magazine thinks that Gregory's mother may have had something to do with it.

Fast-forward to the mid-19th century and Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain's mother who made a wicked deep-fried dough that cleverly used her son's spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. Some say she made it so son Hanson and his crew could store a pastry on long voyages, one that might help ward off scurvy and colds. In any case, Mrs. Gregory put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through, and in a literal-minded way called them doughnuts.

Her son always claimed credit for something less than that: putting the hole in the doughnut. Some cynical doughnut historians maintain that Captain Gregory did it to stint on ingredients, others that he thought the hole might make the whole easier to digest. Still others say that he gave the doughnut its shape when, needing to keep both hands on the wheel in a storm, he skewered one of his mom's doughnuts on a spoke of his ship's wheel. In an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century, Captain Gregory tried to quell such rumors with his recollection of the moment 50 years before: using the top of a round tin pepper box, he said, he cut into the middle of a doughnut "the first doughnut hole ever seen by mortal eyes."

Again, more at the link.

I never thought of the donut as being part of seafaring history, as well as culinary.  One learns something new every day.


The demon of inflation has lost more of the chains holding it back

Demonocracy is known for its graphic illustrations of financial facts and figures that can be so large we simply can't grasp them.  It puts them into visual terms to which we can relate.  For example, here's $1 trillion in $100 bills, stacked up and arranged neatly together alongside objects with which we're familiar (a Boeing 747, an eighteen-wheeler, the White House, etc.) for scale.  Click the image for a larger view.

Demonocracy has used the same technique to visualize the current US stimulus package in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  It's frightening when you realize just how big it is - and understand that the whole thing is based on borrowings and "printed money", generated out of nowhere, with no economic reality to back it up.  Here it is in video form.  I recommend watching it in full-screen mode to get the full impact.

You can see the whole thing as a Web page at this link.  It's even more frightening like that than in a small video window.

Finally, remember that you and I - every single US taxpayer - is on the hook to repay that money, sooner or later.  I don't think that's economically or mathematically feasible, which leaves only two options.  Both may happen, separately or together.
  1. The rate of inflation will be deliberately allowed to grow, rendering "current" dollars almost worthless in relation to "historical" dollars.  Old debts can then be repaid with new dollars, a much less painful process.  Unfortunately, that leads to hyperinflation.  Just look what happened to Weimar Germany when it tried to do exactly that to repay war reparations.

  2. The US government will simply ignore fiscal reality and continue to borrow money to fund its expenditure.  This will see the deficit climb, and climb, and climb, until eventually no-one will buy US bonds or securities any more, because the "debt overhang" has become so great as to threaten the stability of the world's economic system.  At that point, the US government's ability to pay for all its programs will collapse - as will the US dollar as a world reserve currency, and the US economy as a whole.

As I said, the really scary prospect is that we may see both of those things happening simultaneously.  During the previous recession, the Federal Reserve ended up as the largest "buyer" of securities issued by the US Treasury, effectively printing money to pay for printed securities that weren't worth the paper they were printed on.  It's doing the same thing now, as international demand for US securities can't absorb the trillions of dollars required for the current pandemic stimulus package.  The Federal Reserve's balance sheet has grown astronomically over the past couple of months, and the growth shows no signs of slowing down.

There are those who argue that the current situation may lead to deflation, rather than inflation, due to asset prices taking a major hit.  In the short term, they may well be correct.  However, in the long term, the lesson of history is clear.  Dilute the currency in any way (adulterating precious metals with base, or printing money without any economic foundation to support it) and sooner or later, the chickens come home to roost.  Inflation is the inevitable result.

I think we're already seeing some of that affecting the consumer.  Have you noticed food prices lately?  I know they're attributed to market conditions, but I think they also reflect the underlying reality of inflationary pressure on the consumer.  I've demonstrated several times in the past that real consumer inflation, as measured by objective sources such as Shadowstats or the Chapwood Index, has been far higher than official figures.  As Miss D. and I do our shopping every week, we're seeing inflation even higher than that.  Some items' prices have increased by more than 25% since March!

What will dumping an extra few trillion dollars into the economy, money created out of nothing from nowhere, do to the rate of inflation over time?  I think we all know.


Miss D.'s new book is out!

My wife has just published her third novel, "Going Ballistic".  I think it's her best yet.

Dorothy is a pilot, and it shows to good advantage in this book.  She's able to describe the minutiae of flying, and the typical interactions of a pilot with airport and airline personnel, in a way that's authoritative, entertaining, and holds one's interest without becoming too technical.

A few other authors in the North Texas Writers, Shooters and Pilots Association, including yours truly, were consulted about the finer details of aircraft security, assault tactics, and other interesting military bits and pieces, so we were drawn into the action early on.  Some of our collective and individual memories of the loud-noises variety may be found in these pages, thinly disguised as fiction.

The blurb reads:

When her plane tries to come apart at apogee during a hijack, ballistic airline pilot Michelle Lauden handles the worst day she could imagine. After getting down without losing any passengers or crew, though, she finds her troubles have just begun!

The country she's landed in has just declared independence from the Federation. The Feds intended her passengers to be the first casualties in the impending war - and they're not happy she's survived to contradict their official narrative in the news.

The local government wants to find her to give her a medal. The Feds are hunting her to give her an unmarked grave. As they both close in, Michelle's running out of options and time. The only people able to protect her are an accident investigation team on loan from the Federation's enemies... the same enemies who sent her hijackers in the first place.

And they have their own plans for her, and the country she's in!

At present the novel is available in an e-book edition.  A print edition is in preparation, and will follow (God, the Internet and willing) within a month or so.


Monday, May 25, 2020

Memes that made me laugh 8

Another weekly roundup.

And this one isn't funny, just infuriating because it's true.


Memorial Day

Let Sergeant McKenzie speak for all veterans, and for all wars.

To those who stood their ground beside me, and did not come back . . . I remember you.  You are not forgotten.


Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sunday morning music

Now and then readers send me music recommendations, to which I always listen in the hope of discovering something new, interesting and enjoyable.  Even if I don't necessarily like what they recommend, it helps stretch my musical boundaries and keep me from staying in the same old rut.

One such recommendation came from reader Badfrog a few weeks ago.  He sent a link to a video on YouTube.  It's from Icelandic group Skálmöld, who are described by Wikipedia as "a Viking / folk metal band".

The band's name is literally translated as Age of Swords and also means "lawlessness", referring to the Age of the Sturlungs of Icelandic history, when a civil war broke out between the country's family clans.

. . .

From the beginning, Skálmöld's intention has been to combine the sounds of the traditional Icelandic music and metal. Initially, the band planned to use a lot of folk instruments, but soon decided to scale back and have three guitar players instead. The band's influences include such metal bands as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Anthrax, Slayer, Amon Amarth and Ensiferum, as well as Jón Leifs, the classical Icelandic composer. Skálmöld's lyrics, written by Snæbjörn entirely in Icelandic, are inspired by the Norse mythology and Icelandic sagas. Furthermore, the lyrics conform to some of the Old Norse poetic forms, including fornyrðislag and sléttubönd.

All the band members are members of the heathen organisation Ásatrúarfélagið. Jón Geir Jóhannsson explained the way they believe in the Norse gods: "You shouldn't personify them. It's not people, it's stories that represent human nature. So yes, the ethics are there, but we don't believe in them as 'persons'."

There's more at the link.

I freely admit, I don't like their vocal style.  Their lyrics are sung in a hyper-aggressive growling tone typical of a lot of thrash metal groups, which I find grating and unpleasant on the ear.  On the other hand, their melodies are undoubtedly inspired by both the folk and the classical traditions, and make interesting listening.  Judge for yourself in this live performance (with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra) of the group's composition "Kvaðning" (which Google Translate renders as "Query" or "Question").

The track is taken from the group's 2013 live album "Skálmöld Og Sinfóníuhljómsveit Íslands" ("Skálmöld with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra").  The group also has five studio albums to its credit.  Many tracks are available on YouTube.  Here, for example, is the song "Vanaheimur" from their 2016 album "Vögguvísur Yggdrasils" (which translates as "Cradle of Yggdrasil" or "Yggdrasil's Cradle" - it appears to refer to the branches of the fabled tree of Norse mythology as the cradle of the life or lives that depend on it).

My verdict?  I like their melodic lines, and the innovation of blending the Viking and folk rock genres (or, more accurately, sub-genres).  I dislike (and I mean really dislike) their vocal style;  to me, its grating violence ruins the music behind the lyrics.  There are clearly many who disagree with me, or the group (and the many thrash metal groups like them) would not survive and thrive as they do.  Nevertheless, I'd like to hear an album of their music without the vocal track.  I think an instrumental version would be much more enjoyable to my old-fashioned ears.

I leave it to you to make up your own mind.  Meanwhile, thanks to reader Badfrog for broadening my musical horizons.  This was an intriguing diversion.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

Saturday Snippet: Marriage proposals, noble and ignoble

Back in 1984, English author Rosalind Miles published a book titled "Modest Proposals:  or, May I Call You Mine?"

It's a light-hearted look at marriage proposals, real and fictional, down the ages.  My mother bought it when it came out, and had a good laugh over it:  and, when I was next at home, I did the same.  When I immigrated to America, I brought it with me as part of my library, so my copy is particularly well-traveled - from England, where it was printed and published, to South Africa, to the USA.

Here are a few excerpts.

The ideal proposal is a magical moment, a peak of ecstasy amid a whirl of impressions of beauty - ballgowns and roses, passion and palm trees, with the strains of heavenly music wafting in the distance.  But many people's experience falls far short of this ideal - they get the strains without the music.

Alida Baxter, for instance, found that her marriage proposal could hardly have occurred at a less propitious time and place.  As she ruefully confesses in her autobiography, "Flat On My Back":
I wouldn't be married at all if it weren't for that stomach upset I had in 1969.  I was run down, and being proposed to through the lavatory door caught me off guard.

Yes, well, it would, wouldn't it?  In fairness the Baxter swain had been doing sterling work nursing his inamorata through a combination of Montezuma's Revenge and the Black Death, on what was supposed to be a jolly holiday in Spain.  When language broke down with the Mediterranean medico, he even carried devotion to the extreme of miming her complaint for the doctor's better understanding - which was, in fact, diarrhea!

Now a man who'll mime diarrhea for you in front of a grinning foreigner is clearly a man of many parts, but a sense of timing was not among them.  He waited until his true love was philosophizing from the depths of the bathroom about the division of the Spanish nation into sadists and masochists - 'the sadists manufacture the toilet paper, and the masochists use it' - and chose this tender moment to pop the question.  As she says herself:
There can't be all that many people who've received a proposal of marriage through a lavatory door and I sometimes consider ringing up the Guinness Book of Records, but perhaps an ex-nurse friend of mine has the edge on me.  Her husband proposed to her after she'd given him an enema.

. . .

Of all prospective fathers-in-law, the most sorely tried must have been the father of Olivia Langdon, the best beloved of Samuel Clemens ('Mark Twain').  Clemens was a great admirer of women and by common consent at his best in their company:  'he loved the minds of women, their wit, their agile cleverness, their sensitive perception, their humorous appreciation, the saucy things they would say, and their pretty defiances', recalled one of his friends.  But he fell in love deeply only once, with the beautiful Olivia, as he confessed to his clergyman's wife:
I am in love beyond all telling with the dearest and best girl in the world.  I don't suppose she will marry me.  I can't think it possible.  She ought not to.  But if she doesn't I shall still be sure that the best thing I ever did was to fall in love with her, and be proud to have it known that I tried to win her.

There were tremendous obstacles in the way.  Although now so admired as a leading American writer and humorist, Clemens had had a rough life working and tramping in the Mississippi region, and traces of it survived in his manner ever after.  He was casual and irreverent;  he didn't give a fig for parlor protocol, and would make himself a terror to maiden ladies by putting his feet up on their tables and draping his loose-jointed legs over their chairs.  He was also an incorrigible prankster, and nothing was safe from his sense of the ridiculous.  More seriously, he had no position and poor prospects.  Stern Mr. Langdon was not about to entrust his daisy-flower to such an unpromising reprobate.

But Clemens was a smart man.  As soon as his feelings for Olivia were noticed on a visit, he was asked to leave.  But someone had removed the bolts from the back seat of the family station wagon - so when the horse moved off, the passenger was tumbled out of the back.  His resulting 'concussion' meant that he had to be carried back into the house, and nursed back to health - by Olivia!

Olivia herself was soon won.  But her father was unconvinced.  Finally he proposed that Clemens should provide some character references to establish his suitability as a husband.  Clemens wrote at once to half a dozen worthy citizens who had been on good terms with him earlier in his life.

Naturally any friend of Clemens would share his roistering sense of humor.  All his references obliged with outrageous replies stressing his rambunctious history and claiming that he would make about the worst husband since Blackbeard.  Clemens was summoned to the Langdon house to hear the verdict passed on him by his 'supporters'.  In his own words:
I couldn't think of anything to say.  Mr. Langdon was apparently in the same condition.  Finally he raised his handsome head, fixed his clear and candid eye upon me, and said, "What kind of people are these?  Haven't you a friend in the world?"

I said, "Apparently not."

Then he said, "I'll be your friend myself.  Take the girl.  I know you better than they do."

And so the day was won.

. . .

A proposal is a paradox - just as it can be the liberation of a woman, it can also be the clanging of the trap door for a man.  The state matrimonial has not always had a good press.  Marriage is an institution, said Oscar Wilde, and who wants to live in an institution?  His view received some support from Ogden Nash in a wry poem called "I Do, I Will, I Have":

How wise I am to have instructed the butler
to instruct the first footman to instruct the second
footman to instruct the doorman to order my carriage;
I am about to volunteer a definition of marriage.
Just as I know that there are two Hagens, Walter and Copen,
I know that marriage is a legal and religious alliance entered
into by a man who can't sleep with the window shut and a
woman who can't sleep with the window open.
Moreover, just as I am unsure of the difference between
flora and fauna and flotsam and jetsam,
I am quite sure that marriage is the alliance of two people
one of whom never remembers birthdays and the other
never forgetsam,
And he refuses to believe there is a leak in the water pipe or
the gas pipe and she is convinced she is about to asphyxiate
or drown,
And she says Quick get up and get my hairbrushes off the
windowsill, it's raining in, and he replies Oh they're all right,

it's only raining straight down.
That is why marriage is so much more interesting than divorce,
Because it's the only known example of the happy meeting of
the immovable object and the irresistible force.
So I hope husbands and wives will continue to debate and
combat over everything debatable and combatable,
Because I believe a little incompatibility is the spice of life,
particularly if he has income and she is pattable.

. . .

A very human story of a man's ambivalence, hesitating on the threshold of this great moment and undecided whether to go forward or back, is Jack Benny's courtship.  His girl loved him and had given him every sign of her feelings.  When he told her that he was leaving town, she blurted out, "If you were a gentleman, you'd ask me to go along with you!"

The effect that this simple line produced was devastating.  The great comedian, who had this effect on so many other people, himself literally fell on the floor and rolled about, laughing his head off.  Naturally somewhat miffed, our heroine lost no time in getting herself engaged to another man.  But as soon as her engagement was made public, she says:
... the phone rang.  It was Jack. "I hear you're getting married."

"Yes, I am," I replied.

"Well... the last month or so, I've been thinking about you... And if ever I WANTED to get married, I'd like to marry you... but I DON'T want to get married..."

"Well, that's fine for YOU," I said sarcastically, "but I'M getting married."

"Look," Jack went on, "... I really do think you're much too young to get married... But if you ARE going to get married, why don't you marry me?"

Without missing a beat, I said, "Fine."

"Well then," Jack said, "let's get married this Friday - BEFORE I CHANGE MY MIND!"

There are plenty more stories in the book, many of them highly amusing.  It's long out of print, but used copies are freely available.


Friday, May 22, 2020

Pinky swear?

This news report made me do a double-take.

Shakespeare was right:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


EDITED TO ADD:  Overseas readers who may not understand the title of this post, see here.

Strip away the civilized veneer, and human beings are still capable of anything

I'm obliged to American Partisan for posting a video of the rebellion and civil war in the Congo in 1964, when white mercenaries and Belgian paratroopers had to restore order across thousands of square miles of equatorial forest and bush.  The video is explicit:  you'll see bodies and parts of bodies, all of them real, and most of them casually discarded or even used as decorations by the fighting men.  That's what such absolute disregard for human life does to those who encounter it.  Eventually, it grinds you down.  You become numb, inured to it, no matter how deep your faith or developed your conscience.

I'm not going to embed the video here, because it's very graphic in its depiction of brutality and horror.  Nevertheless, if you want to see what Africa can be like at its worst, I recommend you watch it.  You'll find it at this link.  When you've done so (or if you'd rather not watch it, for which I don't blame you), read on below.

The thing is, nothing's changed in Africa.  Precisely that same brutality is going on right now in the east of the Congo.  The terrorist groups who oppose (and sometimes attack and kill) the medical teams trying to deal with Ebola?  They're the descendants of the same people who slaughtered so many thousands in the sixties.  It's not just the Congo, either.  The Rwanda genocide, the Burundi civil war, the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, the South Sudan civil war, the Sierra Leone conflict, the First and Second Liberian civil wars, the Rhodesian conflict, South Africa under apartheid . . . the list goes on and on.  Nor is it just Africa.  The Killing Fields of Cambodia, the East Timor genocide, the Nicaraguan Revolution, the Salvadoran Civil War . . . need I name more?  For another example of this sort of casual brutality in action, see the documentary "Cry Freetown" about the civil war in Sierra Leone.  You'll find it at this link.  The same warning applies to that video as to the earlier one - it's brutal.

This is the reality of more primitive societies when the thin veneer of civilization is removed from them.  Decades of colonial rule, followed by independence and decades of alleged "education" and "development", have not changed that basic reality.  I know.  I've been in many of those countries, and seen that at first hand for myself.  Nor is it only allegedly "primitive" societies.  Our First World nations are just as vulnerable to such savagery.  Consider the Holocaust, or the lynching of black people during the civil rights struggle in the American South.  It's just that we (usually, but not always) take longer to strip away our slightly thicker veneer of civilization.

Many people in the First World today have become so insulated from this sort of reality that they literally can't conceive of it.  Yet . . . it's not very far from us.  Consider cartel violence in Mexico, or the worst of the crime-ridden inner-city ghettoes in the United States.  Precisely the same savagery is evident there.  It's almost indescribable to a Western audience, because their educated, civilized minds just can't wrap themselves around such things.  Yet . . . it's true.

We may degenerate more slowly than others, revert to savagery more gradually than others:  but in all of us, civilization is only so deep.  Pushed far enough, some - too many - of us really are capable of reverting to the most primitive savagery.  I hate to acknowledge that, and I don't want to believe it, but I've seen too much to doubt it.