Friday, July 10, 2020

Farewell then, Russian bounty "scandal"

Re-upping our April post on the futility of outrage cycles based on upstream intelligence.  Trump is a horrible president. We don't need partial leaks of fragmentary intelligence to insider reporters looking for red meat to toss to Putin-phobic rolling news audiences to know that. 

How others see us

Peter Beinart's much-discussed Jewish Currents article in which he converts himself to a one-state solution for Israel / Palestine --

The reasoning is intuitive. In divided societies, people are more likely to rebel when they lack a nonviolent way to express their grievances. Between 1969 and 1994, when Protestants and the British government marginalized Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) killed more than 1,750 people. When the Good Friday Agreement enabled Catholics to fully participate in government, the IRA’s violence largely stopped.

Adopting this terminology, Catholic participation in government was implemented in 1973-74 ("Sunningdale") but was done in by Unionist opposition and a weak Labour government that wouldn't stand up to them. The edifice collapsed and was painstakingly rebuilt first through a renewed acceptance by Britain of a role for Ireland in Northern Ireland (the Anglo-Irish Agreement, 1985) and then through the GFA to which Beinart refers -- which was Sunningdale 2.0.

The issue was not the lack of mechanism for marginalized Catholics to participate in the political system. There were many issues, among them opportunism and cynicism within (not between) the communities, the reluctance of Britain to deliver what it had committed, and the reticence of Ireland to trigger a disastrous conflict. By 1997, the blockers and spoilers of 1974 and 1985 were the ones doing the deal to share power, and the violence tapered off. But that was less about a novel formula to share power, and more about the right circumstances for a deal that had been available for 25 years. That analogy leads the Israel / Palestine discussion in a very different direction. 

How others see us

Austrian newspaper Wiener Zeitung doesn't hesitate to use class descriptions of Irish politics, the context being Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe elected as president of the group of eurozone finance ministers --

Der 45-jährige Politiker der bürgerlichen Partei Fine Gael ist seit Juni 2017 Finanzminister seines Landes und war vorher unter anderem Verkehrs- und Europaminister.

bürgerlichen means bourgeois.

If it's any consolation, they describe Fianna Fáil the same way. 

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

In case you're wondering who orders those really expensive wines

Wall Street Journal on Wirecard #2 Jan Marsalek:

 In the early 2010s, he celebrated a personal business success with an extravagant lunch in Munich, asking the sommelier to open dozens of high-end wine bottles for a taste, according to a friend who attended. The bill was more than €100,000 ($112,000). 

Saturday, July 04, 2020

There is always a Tweet

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Coronavirus: why the advice on masks was botched

Because from February to April, the public policy elites who opposed universal mask wearing could not overcome their class consciousness.  They thought that if they advised everyone to wear masks, there would be a frenzy of infeasible N95 mask demand.  Because that's what their upper middle class circle would do. In fact,  cloth masks emerged on their own, and saved far more lives than the elite focus on ventilators. 

Friday, June 26, 2020


Frank Lampard (Snr), right, headed out on the field at Maine Road, Manchester City's ground, 21 March 1970, when West Ham stunned City who were otherwise having a fabulous season.

Frank's son, Frank, oversaw Chelsea's defeat of Manchester City last night, handing the title to Liverpool. The arc of history is ... weird. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Song in Honour of the latest DNA research findings about Newgrange

Side note: let's check back in 2 years as to how many of the media-friendly extrapolations about who is buried in the Boyne Valley neolithic tombs have stood up to scrutiny. It may be an Irish Pharaoh, but as the song says, it was hundreds of years before the dawn of history, and nobody know who they were or what they were doing. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

He's read 25 books about Saudi Arabia

The Financial Times on West Bank annexation:

 "Netanyahu was surprised to hear how angry he [King Salman] was," says one foreign ministry official. "He had been told by Kushner that the Saudis were under control." 

Dictator loses election

That's the New York Times print edition for 17 June. Someone maybe realized that with the original decree powers having been proclaimed by elites as the end of democracy in Hungary, a headline saying that the end of the decree period was the end of democracy might be a stretch. So the current web headline is Hungary Moves to End Rule by Decree, but Orban’s Powers May Stay.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Why do Trump's past tweets predict his current behaviour?

A film plot:

A post-Apocalyptic future, caused by the presidency of Donald Trump. A desperate band of survivors builds a time portal where a message can be sent back before November 2016 to warn us about Donald Trump.

The problem: the portal is not for people. It has to be a piece of code, programming, a virus (if you will). And because of the Apocalypse, the only device for which our future heroes have the needed coordinates is ... Donald Trump's iPhone. 

So the message that is sent back in time is a series of Tweets appearing to come from Trump, but in fact are the warnings to our 2013-16 selves about what a future President Trump would do. 

But just like in The Terminator, the future forces of evil are not idle. They too can send back one piece of code to foil the plot to avert our disastrous future.

That code is ... a leak of Hillary Clinton's e-mails. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Friday afternoon quality post

[Previously in this series]

The New York City disaster

The Wall Street Journal has a superbly-reported story on what went wrong with the Coronavirus response in New York City and State. It's subscription only and we're not excerpting. You'll come away with a very different perspective (worse) of Andrew Cuomo than you might have had from media coverage; your perspective on Bill de Blasio will be about as bad as you would have expected. The article should also be another nail in the coffin of the Spring 2020 ventilator hype -- as it explains, ventilators were at best a red herring, and at worst, might have actually killed people, because they were pushed into use without adequate staffing, supplies, or knowledge of how best to use them for patients that already had very poor odds by that point. 

Film recommendation

With the current events in the USA, which have spilled over to many other countries, it's tough to diversify from the grimness of the news. One form of escapism that's actually usefully relevant as well: watch, or re-watch Black Panther. Its resonant quote, near the end, from the dying villain Erik, completes its rumination on the relationship between Africa and America .... in the form of a really good "fantasy" film:

Just bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships  ... because they knew death was better than bondage.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Playlist for the week that social distancing died (2)

Playlist for the week that social distancing died (1)

For cat people only

From Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), discussing pet ownership as a form of wealth-signalling --

In the case of those domestic animals which are honorific and are reputed beautiful, there is a subsidiary basis of merit that should be spoken of. Apart from the birds which belong in the honorific class of domestic animals, and which owe their place in this class to their non-lucrative character alone, the animals which merit particular attention are cats, dogs, and fast horses. The cat is less reputable than the other two just named, because she is less wasteful; she may even serve a useful end. At the same time the cat’s temperament does not fit her for the honorific purpose. She lives with man on terms of equality, knows nothing of that relation of status which is the ancient basis of all distinctions of worth, honor, and repute, and she does not lend herself with facility to an invidious comparison between her owner and his neighbors. The exception to this last rule occurs in the case of such scarce and fanciful products as the Angora cat, which have some slight honorific value on the ground of expensiveness, and have, therefore, some special claim to beauty on pecuniary grounds.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Band name apt for the day

The song is pretty good too.

Eventually they troll themselves

Despite years of evidence that what's happening before one's eyes is indeed happening (Russian military and espionage operations overseas), media outlets still feel compelled to go to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and their wretched mouthpiece Maria Zakharova for a "balancing" quote in their reporting. As if the limits of that methodology were not already clear, we now have, via the New York Times, in the context of an alleged ricin plot in Prague:

The claim that Russia itself was responsible for fabricating the poison plot story — denounced as a “sick fantasy” by Russia’s Foreign Ministry when it first surfaced in April — added a bizarre new twist to an episode that has roiled already strained relations between Moscow and Prague.

As the story explains, the "sick fantasy" ricin story was a hoax, instigated by a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs employee. 

Sultan Man Bad


ISTANBUL - Turks streamed outside on Saturday for their first weekend without a coronavirus lockdown in nearly two months, the day after President Tayyip Erdogan suddenly scrapped a stay-at-home order.


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced a new peace initiative for Libya in Cairo on Saturday, flanked by the eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, whose 14-month offensive to capture the capital, Tripoli, collapsed this week.  ...  For more than five years, rival parliaments and governments in the east and the west have engaged in a stop-start conflict. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia have provided support Haftar, but that backing has been outweighed in recent months by Turkish military backing for the GNA.

[previously in this series]

He's due to stop doing it

This is simple textbook regression to the mean fallacy. With randomness in the data, high observations are more likely -- purely for probabilistic reasons -- to be followed by lower ones, and low observations to be followed by high ones. 

It should be embarrassing that such a basic statistical error keeps being repeated, and to a large audience. 

Friday, June 05, 2020

What we know now about flattening the curve

Great (free link) Financial Times weekend look at the experience of Rosenheim in Germany where things looked grim at the beginning of the pandemic but as with Germany overall, success:

In the end, though, it never came to that: Rosenheim always had enough ICU capacity. That was partly due to a grim truth about Covid-19: at least half the patients artificially ventilated died within four to five days, some of multiple organ failure — a phenomenon that has been seen in many other hotspots. This meant beds were freeing up more quickly than expected.

Much of the early focus on number of ventilators in country X, and having that drive policy, was misplaced.

New White House compound -- exclusive photo

Above, President Trump (right) takes Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko on a tour of the American Presidential Palace at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, partly under construction. Jared Tower (formerly the Washington Monument) can be seen in the background. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

There is always a Tweet

The above, from the New York Times TV critic, was tweeted 2 weeks ago -- before Trump's sudden interest in walking to Christian churches.  

Saturday, May 30, 2020

In Honour of MAGA NIGHT

Sultan Man Bad

Previously in this series.

No wonder Angela Merkel doesn't want to come to Maryland

Photo illustration from Bild of what's possible under Germany Coronavirus restrictions.

Bobos in Limbo

Wall Street Journal, Weekend Edition

Monday, May 25, 2020

Resistance is futile

That man in Ankara

Unpopular opinion: Turkey is currently (1) the only hope for an external criminal investigation of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, (2) the only government willing to put its force where everyone's mouth is in terms of defending the internationally recognized government of Libya, and (3) the only thing standing between Bashar al-Assad and a mass casualty all-out offensive in northern Syria. 

But OK, Sultan Man Bad. 

For future reference

There is a lot of excellent journalism lately. Too much to absorb in one go.Two articles, among many, that will be worth a repeated read. 

First, the Financial Times (free link) on the missing weeks for Chinese President Xi Jinping: there are some indications that he should have known from 14 January, or even from 7 January, that the coronavirus was already a pandemic. What exactly he knew, when he knew it, and his actions throughout the 2nd half of January and early February are extremely murky.

Then there's this stellar Washington Post article on Trump's European travel ban -- introduced far too late, and so botched in its announcement and  implementation that it may have made things worse than not having a ban. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Strict Rules of Golf

New York Times

A Terrorist Horror, Then Golf: Incongruity Fuels Obama Critics 
By Peter Baker and Julie Hirschfeld Davis Aug. 21, 2014

Of course, Trump's tweets from that era now serve almost as a taunt of what a President Trump would get away with.

But what's the excuse of the political reporters who entertained these lines of criticism?

The Grand Unified Theory of Nate Silver

Nate Silver has a circular definition of "news."

What causes an indicator to move? News. How do we know it was News? Because an indicator moved. 

This issue had seemed to be confined to his political analysis.

But now he's doing the same thing on the Coronavirus. There was one example a few weeks ago where he stepped right up to the edge of the Regression to the Mean fallacy, to explain a group of states outcomes that were "stuck in the middle," with an associated epidemiological concept of "partial herd immunity."  In other words, states where not much "seemed" to be happening -- no News. 

Now here is again talking about a "plateau" which can arise if R (the reproduction rate) is approximately equal to 1.

Here's the problem. If R=0.99, infections decline. And R=1.01, infections grow. And these are exponential processes. There is no plateau. 

So why does he do this? Because if R is approximately equal to 1, according to the "media," there's no clear "news" to explain the variation in levels, so he cobbles together a story about levels and changes -- which is the road back to the Regression to the Mean fallacy. Hair of the average dog that bit him, many times.  

UPDATE 25 MAY: He keeps doing it. This thread is textbook example of Regression to the Mean fallacy. He's selecting states based on high deaths, and claiming that they will head to a "plateau" based on some theory about reactions to R. And if it doesn't happen -- he'll say that there was "News!"

Friday, May 22, 2020

Those Ikea furniture names are getting more annoying

BBC News website

Mr Nasty, Mr Nice

Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, offers a "moderate" interpretation of wild statements coming from Tehran --

in the context of the conflict with the entity of Israel, with our indication that we are not asking to throw anyone at sea, but we demand the return of those who came from the countries of the world and occupied Palestine to return to their countries.

The times that are in it

End of Ramadan prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, with social distancing. There would normally be thousands of people in this area at all times of day and night.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Phoenician Farce

Reuters on the Boston arrests related to the Carlos Ghosn flight from Japan to Lebanon --

U.S. law enforcement learned Peter Taylor had booked a flight from Boston to Beirut departing Wednesday with a layover in London and he was arrested by U.S. marshals as was Michael Taylor.

Among the many questions: how can it be that jetting off to Beirut via London in the middle of a pandemic is still a thing?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Monday, May 18, 2020

Song of the Day


Sure, we're in some kind of partial Apocalypse, but this is always great.

There is always a Tweet

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Cairo constraints

From Mike Pompeo's 2019 Cairo speech --

And as we seek an even stronger partnership with Egypt, we encourage President Sisi to unleash the creative energy of Egypt’s people, unfetter the economy, and promote a free and open exchange of ideas. The progress made to date can continue. I also applaud President Sisi’s efforts to promote religious freedom, which stands as an example for all leaders and all peoples of the Middle East. I was happy to see our citizens, wrongly convicted of improperly operating NGOs here, finally be acquitted. And we strongly support President Sisi’s initiative to amend Egyptian law so that this does not happen again. More work certainly needs to be done to maximize the potential of the Egyptian nation and its people. I’m glad that America will be a partner in those efforts.

Lina Attalah would like to avail of these words. 

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The New York City coronavirus disaster in one sentence

Gail Collins, New York Times --

Banning flights from Naples doesn’t really have the same appeal as cracking down on Wuhan.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Crossover appeal

Care packages distributed by the Gente Nueva drug cartel in northern Mexico, which bear an image of Osama bin Laden.

Photo via Omnia


Flatten the truth

Chris Giles in the Financial Times is a must-read on how flatten the curve to "protect the NHS" became: if you're going to die, make sure you do it at home, or in a nursing home -- just not in a hospital.

That story is broader than the UK, and the emerging protests against shutdowns are better seen in that light than in the antics of a few media-baiting protestors. 

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Weekend film recommendation

The FT's Robert Shrimsley on how we're back to the 1970s is great. He mentions everything being shades of browns and greys. This is something that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy conveyed perfectly. The film is also a great depiction of how a bureaucracy could tear itself apart on the basis of a Russian intelligence operation, but that kind of thing can't happen anymore. 

Smaller might be better

Financial Times interview with  Antonella Mei-Pochtler, the businesswoman leading Austria's pandemic recovery strategy:

 “We’re a small country, but we can learn from everybody and we do not think that we know everything ... There is an inborn arrogance of large countries who think no other country is like them . . . small countries tend to learn much more from each other. We are much more open, to looking right, left, up and down,”

Friday, May 08, 2020

Best Coronavirus I ever had

People Magazine, October 2016 --

In an unearthed interview from 1997, Donald Trump claimed he was a “brave soldier” for avoiding STDs during his single years in the late ’90s. “It’s amazing, I can’t even believe it. I’ve been so lucky in terms of that whole world, it is a dangerous world out there. It’s like Vietnam, sort of. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave solider,” Trump said in the interview when Howard Stern asked how he handled making sure he wasn’t contracting STDs from the women he was sleeping with.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Regression to the mean

This tweet and the associated thread is such a perfect variation of the famous statistical fallacy. Silver looks at a change in cases and relates them to the initial level, inserts some semi-causal views about why the levels vary, and then declares that there is a group in the middle that's "stuck." Once average, always average.

The problem is randomness. Random things (e.g. superspreaders, accidents, things we still don't know) will move states around these categories over time. And with each of those moves, people will come along with new ex post rationalizations for why a particular state is low or high -- and again to seek explain a group "stuck in the middle." It's also the road to leads to inventing epidemiological terms like "partial herd immunity."

It's easy to be fooled by randomness when you forget it's there. 

Monday, May 04, 2020



They were an issue in Ireland up to the early 1980s. In some houses, they probably still are an issue.

Anyway, Ireland (thankfully) has several cohorts that have never had to think about chilblains. Until now.

They are a mysterious Coronavirus symptom in some cases (New York Times). 

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Rorschach meets Luhmann

What does this photograph show?

If your lens on the world is social media in western Europe or North America -- also known as the Valley of the Squinting Tweeters -- it shows too many people and too large groups in a park on a sunny Coronavirus-era day.

What it actually shows in people in Jamwon Hangang Park in the megacity of Seoul. And as the associated Yonhap story comments, they are complying with social distancing. Koreans -- with major success in mitigating Coronavirus and a tradition of messaging about responsible behavior (Robocar Poli!) see an orderly scene in the photograph. But change the caption to a western city, and someone will be along soon enough to declare evidence that no one is complying with social distancing. The reality of social media.

Saturday, May 02, 2020


Al Qaeda in the Upper Peninsula. 

Thursday, April 30, 2020

How did Coronavirus get to Russia?

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Pulitzer / Nobel confusion

Why did Donald Trump have the Nobel Prize on his mind when his tweet-storm today seems like a reference to the Pulitzer Prize, not the "Noble" Prize?

One possibility -- and at the risk of looking for too empirical an explanation: because yesterday, he phoned the current holder of the Nobel Peace Price, Abiy Ahmed, the PM of Ethiopia. Trump is obsessed with this prize, at least back to Barack Obama getting it. And the wires got crossed between his briefing for his Addis Ababa phone call yesterday and his rage today. 

Imagine a board stamping on a basketball hoop -- forever

A hoop in a public recreation center -- mainly used by children -- in Washington, DC.

Exclusive to all newspapers: those Kim Yo-jong headlines in full

Kim Yo-jong: Gen X Millennials gets their first dictator

Out with Bourgeois Bohemian, In with Preppy Proletarian: The Kim Yo-jong Style Guide

Running the Workers Party by Day, Magic in the Kitchen in the evening: Kim Yo-jong's scallion pancake recipe

Dennis Rodman: that time I was at a reception with Kim Yo-jong

From Swiss Chic to Hanoi Hipster: Our travel reporter follows the footsteps of Kim Yo-jong

Game of Thrones Gangnam Style: How Kim Yo-jong outmaneuvered the generals to secure the legacy of her beloved brother

Outrage as Kim Yo-jong accused of "cultural appropriation" over K-pop themed promotional video

Marie Kondo: what we can learn about home organization from Kim Yo-jong

(continues until next 50,000 notch in Covid-19 fatalities)

Net Material Product

The White House statement on the "meeting on the Elbe" (the handshake of American and Soviet troops at the river in 1945) is fascinating. Given the current state of USA - Russia relations, it will be read for every clue of influence. Particularly interesting is the pivot from the front lines to the workers --

We also recognize the contributions from millions of men and women on the home front, who forged vast quantities of war materials for use around the world. Workers and manufacturers played a crucial role in supplying the allied forces with the tools necessary for victory.

It's the hammer and sickle -- without the sickle. Where are the Great Patriot Farmers?

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Quote of the day

Holman Jenkins, Wall Street Journal:

Novel pandemic diseases are not a black swan. Our lockdown response was a black swan. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

The DTs

Goodbye to the Port and Brandy, to the Vodka and the Stag, To the Schmiddick and the Harpic, the bottled draught and keg. As I sat lookin’ up the Guinness ad I could never figure out How your man stayed up on the surfboard after 14 pints of stout. [Christy Moore]
THE PRESIDENT: Right. And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that. So, that, you’re going to have to use medical doctors with. But it sounds — it sounds interesting to me.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Word of the day


Defined as rule by a class associated with the Spectator (UK) Magazine.

Usage spotted in Robert Shrimsley's excellent discussion (Financial Times) of how the Covid-19 choices are getting embedded in the UK's version of the culture war:

...  a claque of the government’s media outriders clustered around the Spectator magazine, an outfit whose diaspora also includes Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, and his chief strategist, Dominic Cummings. One lockdown sceptic, Toby Young, a Gove ally and associate editor at the magazine, has set up a website to argue that the lives saved are being overvalued and the costs understated.  Both Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings are less hawkish and worry premature easing may lead to a second peak and more economic damage. But the instincts of the Spectocracy are often aligned and find favour with this government.

Monday, April 20, 2020


Iran's Coronavirus crisis is so urgent and requires so much focus and relief from other countries that ... emoji condolence guy, foreign minister Javad Zarif, has time to visit Bashar al-Assad today.

At least there's more social distancing in this photo than during the late-March visit to Bashar of the Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu.

How did the Coronavirus get to Moscow anyway?

Photo via Fars. Note: it's not clear why Fars published some photos featuring no masks and some with masks

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Crisis playlist

Bored children will suddenly spring into activity singing along with this one.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Learned nothing, forgotten nothing

Buried by the coronavirus, and maybe it would be have been buried anyway, the New York Times detailed some serious errors in the 2016 US government surveillance of people in the orbit of the Trump campaign, and in a parallel, a possibility -- obvious to followers of George Smiley -- that the infamous Steele dossier on Trump was itself a Russian disinformation campaign:

Such ties created a risk that the Russian intelligence services deliberately planted misinformation in Mr. Steele’s network. Complicating matters, however, is that Mr. Steele was trying to understand what Russian intelligence services were doing with regard to the Trump campaign. He would seemingly need his sources to be in contact with people with connections to those services or the Kremlin who were in a position to know what was going on.

In other words, the Steele dossier was raw intelligence. He was talking to people, shady people who knew other shady people, writing down what they said, presenting an assessment of it -- but it was up to others to draw conclusions from the layers of shadiness.

The problem is that his approach presumed patience, and instead it got short-circuited, with upstream intelligence work finding its way directly into the public domain.

This is not a new problem.

In 2002, upstream intelligence on Saddam Hussein's possible WMD program found its way to Dick Cheney.

In 2013-14, upstream intelligence on Libyan Islamist groups found its way to House Republicans looking for dirt on Hillary Clinton.

And now, in 2020, upstream intelligence on Chinese research labs and its late 2019 public health situation is finding its way to the media, and in turn feeding an (understandable!) hope among liberals that it can be used against Trump.

The problem with the last approach should be evident with the previous three instances. Upstream and raw intelligence and surveillance is all about indirect information, informed speculation, and tentative assessments. It's not designed for instant conclusions. If there were instant conclusions, you wouldn't need the analysts in the first place.

Any attempt on a China Knew Therefore Trump Knew "scandal" is not going to end well. It will be a circus of operatives, memos, "leaked" reports, opportunists, grifters, insta-experts, and cranks.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Coronavirus is the Bourgeois Plague (4)

Arlington Virginia, via Arlington Now--

“Obviously a lot more people are home all day,” Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services spokesman Peter Golkin told ARLnow. “They’re cleaning out more than usual, listening to their inner Marie Kondo as they stare at the walls and what’s piled up in front of them. They should indulge themselves with the couch and ARLnow and a few books and put off the big clean-ups for a few months.”

[Previously in this series]

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Monday, April 06, 2020

Royal stare > Mask

King Abdullah of Jordan meets the Minister for Industry and Commerce to discuss food stocks.

Photo via Petra

Sunday, April 05, 2020

It's not just Trump

The Munich Security Conference took place during 14-16 February 2020. This is one of the biggest ground-truthing, thought-leading, direction-of-travel setting, VIP blabbing events of the year. Even emoji condolence guy, Javad Zarif, was there!

Although everyone's talking points had Cover-der-Arsch references to Coronavirus, the virus was discussed as a mainly China issue that would pose risks if it escalated elsewhere.

In fact, the virus had by then taken root in northern Italy -- with a respectable theory out there that Patient Zero for the Italian outbreak actually occurred in ... Munich in January. Bonus idiocy: Zarif was there yukking it up with the media when the virus was rampant in Iran!

But maybe it's not fair just to focus on the pretty vacant thought leaders at one Munich conference.

Eventually we will get some accountability on the pandemic, at least in terms of who knew what and when. And in that accountability, the decision of European countries to allow the Alpine ski season to continue all through February is going to look like total madness.

It takes a huge level of cognitive dissonance to know that the virus was in northern Italy, and yet not wonder whether it might already be all over the Alpine regions, with hundreds of thousands of ski vacationers, including school children, passing through the regions -- regions that also happen to be Europe's economic heartland. Far more than attendees at one or two sporting events, which get all the media attention because they are easier to focus on, this was a critical phase of the transmission.

With this level of haven't-a-clue leadership in Western Europe, is it any wonder that no one is getting too agitated about Viktor Orban?

Photo: MSC Müller

Friday, April 03, 2020

To rebel is justified

After a tumultuous event in such and such a country, a pundit will usually step forward to say "Where is [this country's] Nelson Mandela?"

So for China, where is China's Deng Xiaoping, the leader who will emerge from a previous Communist Party cohort's wreckage and right the ship?

Quote of the Day

Marshall McLuhan, The Media Approach to Inflation, New York Times, 21 September 1974:

The new economic situation, in which the game is to anticipate events at every turn and at every level, using the interval between the present and the coming events as if this interval were a tangible thing, this new situation in comparison with the older nuts-and-bolts economy presents a contrast somewhat similar to the "old journalism" and the "new journalism." The old journalism had aimed at the objectivity by "giving both sides at once." The new journalism seeks, rather, to immerse the reader in the total situation, using the resources of imaginative fiction to provide a multileveled experience.The new journalism is quite prepared to urge that "news" is necessarily a form of fiction or making. In the same way, the new economy is based on information and gaps and promises, and precisely to the degree that the new economy is based on the simultaneous, it fosters, invites,demands the rule of the anticipatory, the role of the hunter that the blow must strike where the quarry will be.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Competing risks

Important point from FT Health --

High rates of childhood vaccination against preventable diseases will be difficult to sustain with prolonged social distancing.

Coronavirus is the Bourgeois Plague (3)

Golf and Tennis comply with social distancing requirements.

[previously in this series]

Good instincts

Real time news reporting like this one from CNBC in Davos in January deserve a renewed focus given where the world is now.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Drive our cars

One of the cultural changes that has been slow to happen under the Coronavirus is the revitalization of car culture. Sure, you're not supposed to be leaving your house for any reason, but you're not violating the spirit of the restrictions by getting into your own car with your own family members and driving around indefinitely.

In that sense, western countries are headed to where Saudi Arabia has always been -- the car an extension of the zone of freedom that otherwise only existed inside your house. And with the trend in oil prices, it might even be that fuel prices are headed to about the same level as Saudi Arabia.

Above, a video from nearly a decade ago that celebrated / gently mocked this feature of the country.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Crisis playlist

When you need to evoke an alternative mood to cope with the pandemic.

Behind the wheel of a large automobile

De facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed, gets the inaugural coronavirus test at a new drive-through testing facility in Abu Dhabi.

Photo via UAE News Agency (WAM).

Quote of the Day

From The Anthropology of Epidemics 1st Edition by Ann H. Kelly, Frédéric Keck, Christos Lynteris, (published just over a year ago!) -- the chapter by Carlo Caduff:

Today’s mass media fascination with the next pandemic is partly due to the fact that it operates as corroboration of the mass media’s own discursive problematic: the necessity of creating and maintaining a constant sense of newness. The function of mass media communication, according to Niklas Luhmann, is to simultaneously ‘generate and process irritation’. Invested in the production, circulation, and consumption of irritation, mass media communication stimulates ‘the constantly renewed willingness to be prepared for surprises’. The trope of the next pandemic, in this sense, is a fertile ground for the mass media and its discursive problematic.

No surprise that a reference to the great Niklas Luhmann kicks off the analysis.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

In the long run, we're all recovered

National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper abstract --

Andrew Atkeson. No. 26867 This note is intended to introduce economists to a simple SIR model of the progression of COVID-19 in the United States over the next 12-18 months. An SIR model is a Markov model of the spread of an epidemic in a population in which the total population is divided into categories of being susceptible to the disease (S), actively infected with the disease (I), and recovered (or dead) and no longer contagious (R).

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Gambler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Donald Trump's ostensible bid to have the country reopen by Easter makes perfect sense. If you're familiar with what bankruptcy does to incentives.

A bankrupt firm has an incentive to take the riskiest gamble possible.

It already owes people more than it can pay. That's what being bankrupt means.

So if the gamble goes badly, it owes even more than it can pay. Nothing changes.

But if it wins, and wins big, it gets to pay all those pesky creditors off -- preferably when they've already agreed to take less -- and the firm is suddenly liquid again and keeps all the excess.

It's why countries generally try not have bankrupt firms hang around too long. The payoffs, as Nassim Taleb might say, are yuuugely convex, and that's often not a good thing.

Especially when we the people are the roulette wheel. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Apothecary at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night.
Let's see for means: O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!
I do remember an apothecary,--
And hereabouts he dwells,--which late I noted
In tatter'd weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples; meagre were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones:
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff'd, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter'd, to make up a show.
Noting this penury, to myself I said
'An if a man did need a poison now,
Whose sale is present death in Mantua,
Here lives a caitiff wretch would sell it him.'
O, this same thought did but forerun my need;
And this same needy man must sell it me.
As I remember, this should be the house.
Being holiday, the beggar's shop is shut.
What, ho! apothecary!
Enter Apothecary
Who calls so loud?
Come hither, man. I see that thou art poor:
Hold, there is forty ducats: let me have
A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
As will disperse itself through all the veins
That the life-weary taker may fall dead
And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon's womb.
Such mortal drugs I have; but Mantua's law
Is death to any he that utters them.
Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear'st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;
The world is not thy friend nor the world's law;
The world affords no law to make thee rich;
Then be not poor, but break it, and take this.
My poverty, but not my will, consents.
I pay thy poverty, and not thy will.
Put this in any liquid thing you will,
And drink it off; and, if you had the strength
Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.
Image: Emmet Walsh in the 1996 Romeo and Juliet. And here's Trump's remarkable medicinal tweet

Coronavirus is the Bourgeois Plague (2)

Der Spiegel (along with lots of other publications) -- But it was a visit to the après-ski bar Kitzloch not far from the valley station in Ischgl that proved fateful for many partygoers. A bartender there is thought to have been infected with coronavirus and responsible for passing the disease on to numerous tourists, particularly from Scandinavia and Germany.

[previously in this series]

Seinfeld characters for our time

The Sidler and the Close Talker.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

And then came the virus

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Photo of the Day

King Abdullah of Jordan, running the country by video-conference, in this case a meeting with several Cabinet ministers to get a distance education program up and running by Sunday.

Photo via Petra News Agency.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Literary portrayal of all Coronavirus Twitter

A bit more on this classic Irish novel here. The parallel with the glass-tapping gladiators enforcing the new social norms should be clear. 


In Hogarth's classic contrast of the effects of beer and gin, neither of the depicted people are practicing social distancing. Irish twitter has managed to convince itself to its own satisfaction that people in pubs are Gin Lane, while there's some other form of social activity (perhaps a collective walk past Gin Lane to tut tut?) which is acceptable.

To be fair to Irish twitter, it's not that much different from the stern gaze cast upon crowded restaurants in New York City and Washington DC by people who somehow just happened to be walking past, and then reported their outrage on Twitter.

If you're against people in cities trying to socialize, you might just want to leave.

PS Hogarth really is one of the timeless greats, as his adaptability to Brexit parody illustrates. 

Impossible Missions Force

The Board of the International Monetary Fund is scheduled to have its annual discussion of the economy of Italy on Wednesday 18 March, 2020 (per its public calendar).

That's going to be an interesting discussion. 

Saturday, March 14, 2020


On 5 January 2020, the World Health Organisation issued a detailed statement about a pneumonia of unknown cause that was occurring in Wuhan, and of which the WHO local office had been informed a few days earlier (31 December 2019). This was a critical stage in what would become Covid-19. But the world news at the time was consumed with the US - Iran tensions, with the drone strike against Qassim Soleimani on 3 January, and the Iranian retaliation, during which they shot down the Ukrainian airliner, on 8 January. Not by coincidence, the USA and Iran are two countries that find themselves scrambling to get on top of situations that others had noticed a while ago.

And now the Iranian militias in Iraq are it again. From that perspective it might be an advantage if Trump uses the stock market as opposed to an Iran feud as an indicator of his success. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

We'll take a border in the Irish Sea

Here's the main part of the exchange between Leo Varadkar and Donald Trump yesterday, which includes what at this point is old news, that Trump doesn't understand the difference between the UK and Ireland (by the way Irish people, don't take it personally, he also doesn't understand the difference between ENGLAND and the UK) --

Q Mr. President, can you confirm if Ireland will be excluded from your travel ban — your European travel ban you announced last night? 

 PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, they know, and I think it was made very clear last night who is and who isn’t. And we’ll be discussing that. We’ll be discussing some other moves that we’re going to be making. And I think it’s going to work out very well for everybody. But it’s a world problem, and you do need separation in some cases. You have some areas that are very heavily infected, and you have some areas that aren’t, frankly. But we do need separation for a little period of time, in some cases. 

PRIME MINISTER VARADKAR: Just saying that the President has excluded Ireland from the travel ban. And one of the things that we have in Ireland is CBP, American border security, in Ireland. I went through it myself yesterday, and they were asking the right questions — whether people had been to China, things like that. So that puts us slightly in a different position. 

PRESIDENT TRUMP: And one of the reasons the UK, basically, has been: It’s got the border; it’s got very strong borders. And they’re doing a very good job. They don’t have very much infection at this point, and hopefully they’ll keep it that way.

Two things to note. First, Leo answered the question (correctly!) about what the American President's policy was. Second, he noted that in one key respect, Ireland actually has a better claim to the exemption to the UK, because the US border control is IN IRELAND. So if the USA decided to further restrict travel, they'll know that in Ireland, they don't have to deal with potentially infected people arriving in the USA. The UK does not have that.

UPDATE 14 March: Ireland the UK will now be included in the US travel ban. Understandable given the common travel area, but less understandable given the different approaches of the two countries. Could Ireland still sneak in an exemption from Trump not understanding it's a different country?

Truly, Peace in our Time

Yesterday, the President Macron of France informed the country about the steps being taken to deal with a grave national crisis -- and said that Germany provides the inspiration for what needs to be done:

Nous irons beaucoup plus loin. L'Etat prendra en charge l'indemnisation des salariés contraints à rester chez eux. Je veux, en la matière, que nous nous inspirions de ce que les Allemands ont su par exemple mettre en œuvre avec un système plus généreux, plus simple que le nôtre.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Trump's chaotic address

He mumbled something about the UK being exempt from his travel ban on Europe.

Since Ireland has a common travel area with the UK, does that mean that Ireland is exempt?

UPDATE: Yes, Ireland is exempt. The ban covers Schengen area.

Which means that one way for Schengen zone countries to escape the ban is to ... suspend Schengen. 


The latest escalation of Coronavirus restrictions in Italy has closed many many types of business.

But not tobacconists.

Even though the virus is a respiratory ailment.

Photo: Corriere della Sera

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Rugged Collectivists

But today, Mr. President, you directed us to bring together insurance companies — health insurance companies — that cover, through private insurance and through their support of Medicare and Medicaid, almost 240 million Americans.   

That's an interesting definition of American healthcare provision.  The private insurance companies get to count the people paid for by government programs!

Coronavirus is the Bourgeois Plague

A new occasional series.

Wall Street Journal --  After years of squeezing ever more workers into tighter office spaces, companies are realizing how efficiently the modern workspace can spread diseases like the coronavirus. Cubicles and private offices have made way for open floors, where a sneeze or cough can circulate uninterrupted. Companies have removed physical barriers between employees, encouraging them to socialize as much as possible.

Also in WSJ --  A strategy meeting for senior managers at Boston-area biotech Biogen Inc. late last month has emerged as a hotbed for novel coronavirus infections, resulting in more than two dozen around the country so far, according to public-health and company officials. The spread of coronavirus infections from the meeting highlights the potential dangers in going ahead with the gatherings and conferences that are a staple of conducting business but which also threaten to amplify epidemics. “There’s a lot of handshaking, there’s a lot of being in close quarters, and that puts you at risk,” said Manish Trivedi, the director of the division of infectious diseases at AtlantiCare in New Jersey. “You eat something. You rub your eyes. You touch your face.” Senior Biogen managers who attended the strategy meeting at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel have since traveled to gatherings of investors and doctors, as well as returned to their homes in communities that are also now confronting infection risks.

To be continued ...

UPDATE 17 APRIL: The New York Times has more details on the Biogen superspreader fiasco -- which describes what is almost a parody of upper middle class existence. 

The stupidity virus

Notwithstanding the increased need to focus on Coronavirus, this excellent New York Times article leads to the conclusion that there's a fresh group of idiots planning to get stranded near the top of Mount Everest in a repeat run of last year's overcrowding fiasco on the Nepali side  -- about which nothing has been done. Collectively, we might be beyond redemption. 

The Coronavirus asterisk

From the Trump Peace Plan for Israel / Palestine, page 16

Jerusalem’s holy sites should remain open and available for peaceful worshippers and tourists of all faiths. People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion’s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Coronavirus reading list

More on Malthus here.

It's amazing how quickly people lapse into his world view. 

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Leo, don't shake hands with him

This is the apparently just-ousted Trump Administration Office of Management and Budget Director and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney: March 16, 2017, wearing his St Patrick's Day shamrock, defending proposed cuts in public feeding programs for elderly people and school children in poverty. This was the low point of Irish-Americanism as a progressive force in American politics.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will do a slightly ahead of schedule St Patrick's Day visit to the White House on 12 March. He can cite Coronavirus as a reason to have no interaction with this character in his new role as the Northern Ireland Special Envoy. 

To Hell or to Ulster

Mick Mulvaney is likely paying the price for having blurted out the truth about Trump's Ukraine quid pro quo, and for having botching the implementation of it. 

Friday, March 06, 2020

Life comes at you, etc

February 2017. Mike Pompeo, then CIA Director, presenting Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, with the George Tenet medal for anti-terrorism achievements.

MBN really did have some anti-terrorism achievements, including surviving proximity to what turned out to be a trial run of the underwear bombing technique.

MBN was apparently arrested earlier today (Friday) and charged with treason.

Photo via Saudi Press Agency

Friday, February 21, 2020

An armed society is a polite society

US Secretary of State meeting the (new) Sultan Haitham of Oman in Muscat today.

The Omanis also arranged a meeting for Pompeo's wife -- travelling on the junket, apparent with a job title of "Special Assistant" -- with the Sultan's wife.

Photo via Oman News Agency

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Tone watching

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah during a characteristic extended discourse on world and domestic affairs on Sunday --

the Munich conference yesterday and yesterday, so listen to Pompeo how he talks to the Europeans, listen to the US defense minister (Mark Esper), how he talks to China, China is not a small country, China is a superpower, the superiority of whoever addresses China, puts its conditions on it and sets a roadmap for it, which has not passed in the history of the globe, no more superior and arrogant administration, tired, terror and savage than this administration, how it addresses its allies, how it addresses the people who give it billions, but hundreds of billions of dollars, how it insults them.

Your enemies notice when you insult your friends.

[previously in this series]

The Former Prime Ministers' Refuge

Theresa May meets Mohammed bin Rashid, Ruler of Dubai, on the sidelines of the women's empowerment events in the emirate today.

Photo via WAM

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Ireland: Belfast man comments on coalition formation negotiations

Bible Thumper

Evangelical Christian and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his "The West is Winning" speech at the Munich Security Conference --

Name me a moment in history when the weak and the meek have prevailed.

Matthew 5:5-10
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Offer not applicable to owners of newspapers

A characteristically un self-aware positioning by Saturday's Daily Telegraph on the Manchester City fallout -- oblivious to the trajectory of the Telegraph under its billionaire owners, the Barclay brothers. 

Sunday, February 09, 2020

When Ciara met Sabine

Another winter, another cycle of named Atlantic low pressure systems, with all the associated fun! Is your flight from Dublin to Frankfurt delayed by Storm Ciara or Storm Sabine? That depends on whether you're getting the explanation in Ireland (Ciara) or Germany (Sabine). Perhaps the good news is that the confusion over storm naming conventions didn't become an argument for Brexit. 

Friday, February 07, 2020


With the Irish general election tomorrow, a well-timed Financial Times analysis (alt. link) by David McWilliams --

Despite being a nationalist party, this surge in support is not, like the Brexit vote, a vote against the EU. Sinn Féin is committed to the EU as are more than 85 per cent of Irish people.

But is SF committed to the EU?

It knows that Brexit has made a formal exit position toxic. But in fact, its manifesto has numerous references to an EU that would be very different from the current one, raising the question of how deep that commitment actually is. A few sentences:

For too long, a cosy consensus has existed in Irish politics. The consensus extends from economic and social policy to Ireland’s relationship with the European Union ... We will seek to return powers to EU member states and increase the influence of member state parliaments in the EU legislative process. We support reforms of the EU which are aimed at reducing the power of the European Commission, making it more transparent and accountable to the European and member state parliaments, and increasing the influence of smaller member states. Sinn Féin will build a fairer and more democratic European Union that works for the people of Europe, not for the EU insiders, middle-men and corporate interests. Greater transparency must be introduced, the militarisation agenda halted, social protections legally bolstered and powers returned to member states.

This is all summarised in the bullet point "Returning powers to Member States and their parliaments." How is that any different from (1) a David Cameron-like fudge that, as with Cameron, could actually precipitate an exit, and (2) the standard Eurosceptic dodge that, I'm not against the EU, I'm just against it doing anything as a Union?

[Previously in this series]