Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Prime Minister's Coinage

The Israeli Prime Minister
A dirty, rotten scoundrel
Seemed to have found his way
Out of his latest scandal
The vaccine rollout wasn't proceeding
Like other debacles
That have marked his misrule frequently
Nay, the covidious jabs underway
Were being praised and going grandly

He saw an opportunity
To heap further calumny
On others, as is his wont.
Thus he coined The British Mutation
A new variant of a rogues' deflection
Piling on the land of Brexit.
But his nativist gambit
Was for nought, the next day it came a cropper:
The focus turned to Trump's mob

The strange architecture of misdirection
Promoted by insidious gremlins
Is founded on an embrace of euphemism
Uneasy phrases full of absurdism
The merchants of such sour propaganda
Thus cheerfully continue to prosper
So unctuous was his lexicon:
His koan was coated with poison

One aspect of that family's longevity
Notwithstanding the tendency towards the mercenary
Is an unabashed propensity for hubris
In Ghanaian parlance we would call them huhudious
After the loss at the raid on Entebbe came indignation
But also chutzpah and, inevitably, shame abrogation

As goes the old adage
So too the Prime Minister's coinage
Today's news is tomorrow's fish and chips papers
Indeed Yesterday's News is cat litter
And therein lies the opportunist's dilemma
Many a clever soundbite become ephemera
Thus populists are merely feral
While truth is immortal


Nationalism at the expense of another nation is just as wicked as racism at the expense of another race.

William Sloane Coffin Jnr


No nation sinks to greater depths than when its government is obliged to listen silently to moral sermons preached by obvious scoundrels

— Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2

This folktale is part of a series: In a covidious time.


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Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Telemedicine Consultation

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
I think I'm going insane
What with these new variants
Mutations are on the brain
First the English, then the South African
Next the Japanese discovered the Brazilian
The spread simply can't be contained
Just now in Ohio, they found The Columbus Strain

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
I guess the reason we're all suffering trauma
Is the lack of support for nurses and doctors
I can't wait to get a new President
Instead of yet more superspreading events
Remember: he suggested drinking Mr Clean
Long before they approved the Pfizer vaccine

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
I think you'd call it an ethical dilemma
My boy got a lead through an unofficial channel
To jump the queue and get a dose of the Moderna
Vaccine, the magic potion against the Corona
What to do? He's no essential worker
But he's tired of living in a bubble

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
Every day feels like rolling the dice
The root of our covidious predicament:
How's a man meant to go about normal life
With the relentless spread of the new variant?
Hell, the Capitol Police aren't up to the task
What more when so many refuse to wear masks

buried bones and child shoes in backyard

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
What is it with naked ambition
That overtakes a common politician
To take full leave of his senses?
I guess life lived without consequences
Can lead a grifter to incite a riot
Then, left holding the bag,
Now accused of being a cad
Behold: a useful idiot

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
When will we get over the hump
Flatten the curve and get out of this pickle?
Couldn't you conjure up a miracle?
Word is any number of Senators
Somehow got a jump on the action
First on call options for AstraZeneca
Then on the priority lists for vaccination

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
Please clarify the regulations
The Governor keeps making excuses
For fear of breaking the cold chain
Been learning all about freezers
The vaccine distribution algorithm?
Mere lip service to the old geezers
Instead: Battle Royale and The Hunger Games

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
Why do they keep saying the problem is logistical
When you and I both know it's ideological?
They want low taxes and monopoly rents
Not the competent application of government
They held up survival checks - that is
Until they got their Supreme Court Justice

Doll parts and bones

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
I guess it all depends
One's assessment of their incompetence
These chancers thought they could
Wave the plague away with a magic wand,
Wishful thinking and exorcism.
Say what you want
About Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism
I'd rather be living in Taiwan

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
Please help me defeat this unending tedium
I just saw that those pesky actuaries
Are minded to raise my insurance premiums
I get it, times must be hard
For their business, what a mess
But life is harder and stark
Living in a petri-dish of coronavirus

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
They say hindsight is 20/20
And that those responsible shouldn't be taken to task
But they really shouldn't have held
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
And the postal service should have sent out face masks
For want of a bolt, there's no consolation
Six feet under, no questions can be asked

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
Food banks can hardly be the response
To this covidious misery
Starving children don't cry
Tears waste too many calories
No, the kids are not alright
Parking lot wifi out of sight
True, man cannot live on bread alone
But surely you can find some crumbs to loan

Children shoes and buried bones

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
Your English colleague Dr Whitty
Now faces a similar dilemma:
Opportunities lost, goodwill squandered
Political buffoons and a grim death toll
The only saving grace
In this panoply of mistakes
Is that only the virus knows the answer
For whom the bell tolls

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
You've really got to wonder
How come Rupert Murdoch
He of the human capital stock
Was first in line for the vaccine
The nurse really struggled
To find a vein in that body of ice
Also, he already had immunity
His diet gives protection: lies, lies, lies

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
I had to get you on on the phone
For while I was digging up my garden
I came up with children's shoes and buried bones
I'd rather not think about these omens
Got enough problems with the pandemic
Was my yard the scene of an epic
Texas chainsaw massacre?
That's something I don't want to consider

Texas chainsaw buried in the back yard

Telemedicine Consultation, a playlist


A soundtrack for this note

I've been having these conversations with Doctor Fauci for months now. We discuss toli and other matters. He's a good listener, I feel like I'm on the verge of a breakthrough.

See previously: The Grand Reopening of Texas and Gee Doctor Fauci (remixed)

This remote audience with the good doctor is part of a series: In a covidious time.


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Saturday, February 13, 2021

Janet and the Importance of Bubblegum

The Music Snobs were discussing authenticity and the legacy of Control recently. This is somewhat orthogonal to the show but they gave me an opening and I couldn't resist. I have some thoughts on He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive, Janet Jackson and the importance of bubblegum.

He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive plays the same role in Control as Baby be Mine did in Thriller. It is the bridge between what came before and what is new and is to come. To wit:

Baby be Mine could be an outtake or a logical progression from Off the Wall. In the same vein, He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive explicitly winks to the perceived bubblegum of Janet's earlier albums.

Sonically He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive is the closest to pop on the album even though it has the prototypical synth grooves that characterized Minneapolis. Lisa Keith laces the background vocals and Spencer Barnard does the heavy lifting with the writing and production.

You can imagine Terry Lewis hearing this and saying, okay now let's add some funk to the rest of the album. Jimmy Jam would say now let's take it uptown. Cue When I Think Of You, Nasty and all the basslines that endure, the things that we celebrate from Control.

Lyrically, He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive is a trifle. And yet, it is completely disarming. You can't take it too seriously because of the subject matter. It captures the uncertainty of teenage love - the giggles of the unrequited longing. The letters column in Right On magazine.

He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive is needed in the architecture of the album because of the vulnerability it exposes. If we think of Control as Janet's bildungsroman, it is a bildungsroman precisely because of the glimpse of the naivete, the innocence about to be lost.

The sequencing of Control has been much praised. You can do without He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive, we don't talk much about the song, but you'd lose something. The patter that starts What Have You Done For Me Lately echoes her homegirls steping in with advice in the chorus: "Talk to him".

I don't think she ever performed He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive live, it is strictly an album track. Still most people would kill for this kind of filler.

Compare it with almost contemporaneous Crush on You by The Jets that covered the same subject matter and is similarly upbeat and bright dancefloor fodder. Ready For The World's Love You Down captures the sense of yearning but is more akin to Lets Wait Awhile.

I'd like to think that Joe Jackson was expecting more of the same when he entrusted her to Jam and Lewis and was pleasantly surprised. Lightning struck twice, they were good for business.

By the end of Control, Joe Jackson can be under no delusion that his baby girl hasn't moved beyond schoolgirl crushes to needing a supply of birth control pills and condoms in her handbag. The closing moans in Funny how time flies do more work than the later Rolling Stone cover.

Jam and Lewis were great producers because they met their artists as equals and tailored the songs accordingly. Think of the sensitivity towards New Edition, the brotherhood with Alexander O'Neal or the meeting of minds with Cherrelle. Flyte Tyme was a family affair.

Teenage Love, a Playlist


The obligatory crush playlist
Slick Rick is the most wordly of the lot, I'd expect nothing less of hip hop



Others pitched in to confirm that, as speculated, He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive was the first song recorded for Control.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Guy Talk

"Let me tell you about Charlotte, hell of a lay. She'll do anything, you know, try anything. And twice at night." As he worked up on the cables, he continued to wax eloquent about his entanglement. The supporting cast below egged him on for details. The assigned constable too.

wire maintenance

The electrical crew were talking up a blue streak while working on the wires as I stepped out of my house, parental advisories were in order. I learned a lot about Charlotte's prowess in the ensuing minutes. This was vicarious living.

"She kept me up 'til 5 am. I almost missed work. I'mma go back for more. I gotta say, I'm a happy man. Feenin'... Remember what Ray and them used to say?... Yeah man. Fire. Fire in the sheets." He kissed and he told.

"I'm up here - yo, throw that my way. I'm telling you, man. I'm not even thinking about... Nose wide open. I'm not even - She made me forget the pandemic. Where do I sign up? I'mma cash, I'mma cash in all my chips with her. Lockdown here I come." The guy controlling traffic dropped his sign.

Charlotte's web had thoroughly ensnared this man and his audience. I counted 12 of us, the work crew and those who, like me, had come out to observe the commotion, our morning's pandemic entertainment. My two female neighbors shook their heads but kept listening to the locker room talk.

This was unvarnished life. There was undisguised glee and juicy details: all manner of gymnastics were discussed enthusiastically and with aplomb - not explicit, mind you. This was very far from the unexamined life; Socrates would have approved. It took me 12 minutes to pick up my mail.

The Wife had remarked that we didn't need to go far for drama during this pandemic, we simply needed to open our eyes and ears. From the children's shoes and buried bones in the backyard, to the traffickers' house (or was it a brothel?) behind the alley, life was eventful chez nous.

And so I walked back inside the house smiling, my ear blue with bedroom talk. "Okay. Ready? Let's go on our walk". The 9 year old moaned, her younger brother went to hide in his room.

The Wife asked, "What was all that about?"

"They were fixing wires outside... Guy talk."

wire maintenance

Guy Talk, a playlist


A soundtrack to this anecdote.

This blue note is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Tuesday, February 02, 2021

The Skeptic's Credo

If you've ever read Goethe's theory of color, you'll know that there are often ideas that are beautiful, ingenious, and indubitably wrong.

Neither the scaffolding of an idea, the trimmings around a thought, nor its progenitor or credentialed bearer should disguise its essential worth even though any of the foregoing often do, indeed, mask the underlying truth. The bogus wear many disguises.

Both the most simple idea and the most arch concept can be praiseworthy, and fodder for much food for thought and insight, and yet both, the nigh-judious liminal thought and the complex, counterintuitive koan, can be completely and thoroughly mistaken.

We rightly treasure the insight of the boy who remarked that the Emperor "hasn't got anything on", injecting a dose of reality, but understand, all too well, the process that made the gathered multitude ignore the evidence of nude hubris on display in the fable. We live in our own fables.

Incidentally, I should note that Hans Christian Andersen didn't write the sequel about what happened to that little boy and his family six months later when The Authorities could finally deal with them after the wardrobe malfunction. Suffice to say that it wasn't pretty. My idle speculation is that he tipped off his contemporary, Dostoevsky, with the germ of Crime and Punishment - there's a PhD, or alternatively a Hollywood script, in fleshing out that crossover concept.

Suffice to say that the most brilliant of thinkers can turn into cranks of the grandest order when they step out of their lane. The shape of an idea may transcend borders figuratively but its core rarely strays far from home.

This is not to demean the polymath, or to prefer Isaiah Berlin's hedgehog to the roving fox, but merely an observation that critical thinking is always in order. The point is that delusions are not the province of the uneducated or uninformed. All ideas must thus be taken with a grain of salt and shown to relate to reality. If conception and perception must be married, let it be by wisdom.

The Last Philosophers

The skeptic's credo is one of expectant ambivalence infused with an element of pessimism. Always mark your beliefs to market, you almost always hear the skeptic muttering, and with a touch of weary righteousness. The weariness comes from disappointment - an occupational hazard of skepticism, and the righteousness from the fraught history of one's confounding beliefs being proved right.

Scientists often claim to follow the skeptic's method, indeed their august Method - the one that they exhalt in their droning cocktail hour conversation, lends itself to the trappings of authority. The callouts to verifiability, testability and various isms are often worn as badges of invincibility even though they are mere cloaks of fallibility. Reason and inquiry, couched in specific forms lauded by the academy, are attributed the virtues of rigor and given free entry into society's discourse.

One need not go to Issac Newton, who would have sold you on his fever dream of the South Sea bubble, to pursue this point. Charles Darwin and the Brontë sisters would have talked you into spending your fortune on the Railway Manias of the mid 1800s. Even Charles Mackay, the man who wrote the book on Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, himself fell prone to the similar mania. Gullibility is immortal. And the less said of the later, high-minded Victorian dabblers in phrenology and mesmerism - their parlor room séances speak for themselves, and were lampooned in real time. You've no doubt read their books. In our own time, the script may have changed but the servants of empire and of capital are still spouting their dismal wages.

As an engineer, albeit with a literary bent, I am well versed in our own idées fixes and can recite the STEM mantras as eloquently as others. For engineers too bring their blindspots to the table, substituting their programmatic interventions and sundry heuristics for intuitive common sense. The truth is, that peacock of our tribe, the self anointed tech visionary, is often just another blowhard, and should be judged (and ridiculed) accordingly.

The good books would guide us towards skepticism, and the oracles of all religions weigh in on credulity and inveigh against uncritical thinking and behavior. For Muhammed, the saying was "Trust in God but always tie up your camel at night". His earlier counterpart, the man from Nazareth, was a searching critic of authority on this earthly plane, and perhaps the fiercest advocate for performing due diligence in one's life. He would enjoin us to prepare for the kingdom of God and urge us towards the house on the rock (sidenote: perhaps the history of Christianity's spread betrays an inclination for mergers and acquistion, but I digress).

A difficulty with the parable of the wise and foolish builders is that it is all well for Jesus to advocate so incisively for building on solid foundations, but what if the home inspector assured you that the staged house you've just viewed, the one that was actually built on sand, was the real rock solid deal? In human affairs, who really has time for due diligence? And with Murdoch's real estate agent regaling you on the charming features of the McMansion, with Greenspan's Put Banker promising low interest rates come what may, the pressure is on to seal the deal, to stretch one's budget, and take on the liar loan. And this is not academic pedantry, the poor folks who lived in the Grenfell Tower had no reason not to trust the efficacy of the cladding, of all things, that wrapped what became their deathtrap. It is cold comfort to tell their ghosts that a house is not a home.

aryeetey on the line 1998

We are trusting simians not too far removed from the savanna and modernity makes us mostly morons in a hurry. It requires a lot of effort to be vigilant about the many Potemkins we face in life. We resort to heuristics and rules of thumb, and can be taking in by confidence artists of all sorts in the shell game of life. The gremlins and parasites of society prey on us and can easily turn the brightest of us into useful idiots.

If skepticism is the notion that that true knowledge is always uncertain, it simply imposes a frame on its bearer of always questionning, and this can be a wearying approach to life.

The early skeptic of most nostrums (capitalism, what have you) runs the risk of being branded as the designated driver: at once necessary for soul insurance and sober hindsight, but, frankly, buzzkill during humanity's weekend in Vegas. Aficionados of doubt are rarely celebrated by History, there is no cult of doubting Thomas.

Pyrrhonism, the total skepticism of yore, didn't have many adherents because its doctrine of radical skepticism proved immediately unpopular. While it was attempted as an all-encompassing philosophy of life, it has never prospered. It seems that some measure of faith, and, possibly, a considerable amount of that ineffable substance, is required in all human institutions that reproduce themeselves successfully.

It it the plight of the skeptic to forever inhabit the terrain of uncertainty, to vacillate in those borderlands of fate always on the verge of temptation by seductive manias.

The skeptical genes are obviously useful for humanity in our decision making but, paradoxically, they are not mandated, nor necessary, for our species's survival; they are certainly not under selective pressure to be chosen like a peacock's wing or our finely attuned eyesight. Accordingly, we see a wide spectrum of trust cultures around the world. In an era of ease or nostalgia, our propensity for skepticism may even fall prone to atrophy. Walter Bagehot, in Lombard Street, would remark that "All people are most credulous when they are most happy".

How then to hold on to one's skepticism when a bubble is in full flow when, as Keynes noted, "the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain insolvent". My own favorite reading reading comes from Andrew Odlyzko who offers a rich library on bubbles, gullibility and manias. Forewarned is forearmed. Dan Davies also gives insight on cultivating the skeptical inclination or, as he put it, Avoiding Projects Pursued By Morons 101. The selling of the second Iraq war remains an important case study. I fall back to that critical recommendation he makes about the vital importance of audit.

More classically perhaps, I harken to Diderot:
A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it. What has never been gone into impartially has never been properly gone into. Hence skepticism is the first step toward truth. It must be applied generally, because it it the touchstone.
The aphorists of yore prescribed a healthy dose of skepticism, and for good reason, but in their infinite wisdom, gave no guidance on the scale in question. It is lost in the veil of time the names of those who calibrated their formulae let alone their methodology. Further, their measuring sticks didn't have to contend with our fraught modernity. All too often, we only realize the appropriate measure of skepticism with hindsight and too late for optimal decision making. Fierce competitors they may be, I fear that the skeptics are doomed to run the race with a handicap. Ultimately, the tales the skeptics weave revolve around their conceptions of self, and they often live with the letdowns proffered by society and History. And so I remain a student of dissimulation and the strange architecture of misdirection. My fear is that the game is rigged, that we are all marks being cooled off. And the band played on.

To return to Goethe's notion referenced at the outset, pleasing as it may be to believe the "colors are the deeds and sufferings of light", I wouldn't make operational decisions based on that poetic insight. I have to hold fast to my inner skeptic and return to Hilaire Belloc on wishful thinking to give fortitude:
It is always a relief to believe what is pleasant, but it is more important to believe what is true.


The leakage specialist's 100% herbal solution

This note is part of a series on Shell Games. See previously: Shame Cultures

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