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Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (chap 1)

This is available for free via Audible, and in free-text form at archive.org. The introduction is stimulating and sweeping, and whets the interest. Today I finished listening to chapter 1 (“The Rise of Greek Civilization”), and a few passages struck me.

It’s difficult to try to summarise the information presented, because the whole thing is pretty dense. Lazily, I’m just going to quote liberally for my own future recollection. Here is a section which exemplifies the humane rationality for which I particularly appreciate Russell:

Civilization checks impulse not only through forethought, which is a self-administered check, but also through law, custom, and religion. This check it inherits from barbarism, but it makes it less instinctive and more systematic. Certain acts are labelled criminal, and are punished; certain others, though not punished by law, are labelled wicked, and expose those who are guilty of them to social disapproval. The institution of private property brings with it the subjection of women, and usually the creation of a slave class. On the one hand the purposes of the community are enforced upon the individual, and, on the other hand the individual, having acquired the habit of viewing his life as a whole, increasingly sacrifices his present to his future.


It is evident that this process can be carried too far, as it is, for instance, by the miser. But without going to such extremes, prudence may easily involve the loss of some of the best things in life. The worshipper of Bacchus reacts against prudence. In intoxication, physical or spiritual, he recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of every-day preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called “enthusiasm,” which means, etymologically, having the god enter into the worshipper, who believed that he became one with the god. Much of what is greatest in human achievement involves some element of intoxication, some sweeping away of prudence by passion. Without the Bacchic element, life would be uninteresting; with it, it is dangerous. Prudence versus passion is a conflict that runs through history. It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party.

This reminds me of an essay I wrote for a philosophy class which was a part of my jazz degree, years ago, where I feel I was striving towards some similar standpoint. Russell goes on to make an explicit connection to music in describing the cult of Orpheus, perhaps a Bacchic priest offering reform or interpretation, perhaps a sub-doctrine coming to Greece from Egypt via Crete. He speaks of Orpheus’ addiction to music, and a Stoic thread of ascetism, life as suffering, the wheel of reincarnation, and the desire to ascend to the divine, escaping the wheel of temporal suffering, through a life of virtue.

For me, it is the transport and the consolation of music which resonates—and perhaps for the most banal reasons, specifically that for me the pursuit of music seems the best access for me to the fulfillments of the life of the mind (I would sweepingly loop in the plays of Stoppard, the songs of Neil Hannon and Stephin Merritt, and the many other delightful arts), but this pursuit is always in tension with the sensible provision of the means of life. In Russell’s account, this tension is in a sense the gift of the Greeks, whose awareness of philosophy, science, spirituality, and the joys of transcendence (whether through wine, or song, or both), set up an internal conflict which was uniquely theirs in the world up until then.

Not all of the Greeks, but a large proportion of them, were passionate, unhappy, at war with themselves, driven along one road by the intellect and along another by the passions, with the imagination to conceive heaven and the wilful self-assertion that creates hell. They had a maxim “nothing too much,” but they were in fact excessive in everything— in pure thought, in poetry, in religion, and in sin. It was the combination of passion and intellect that made them great, while they were great. Neither alone would have transformed the world for all future time as they transformed it. Their prototype in mythology is not Olympian Zeus, but Prometheus, who brought fire from heaven and was rewarded with eternal torment.

I can’t help but mention that Russell ties this back to the blues (well, in his terms, “negro spirituals”): amongst the consolations of music, as a connection to the divine, is the means of expression of a longing to ascend to heaven and escape the toils of earth. I don’t read any condescension in this allusion; for me it’s more of Russell’s wide-ranging humanity.

Also, I think unusually for the time (1945), or the scholars of his generation, he approves of the early shoots of feminism in Bacchus.

The cult of Bacchus […] had a curious element of feminism. Respectable matrons and maids, in large companies, would spend whole nights on the bare hills, dances which stimulated ecstasy, and in an intoxication perhaps partly alcoholic, but mainly mystical. Husbands found the practice annoying, but did not dare to oppose religion.

and again

Certain definitely Bacchic elements survived wherever Orphism had influence. One of these was feminism, of which there was much in Pythagoras, and which, in Plato, went so far as to claim complete political equality for women. “Women as a sex,” says Pythagoras, “are more naturally akin to piety.”

And his first reference is to a book by a woman:

The influence of religion, more particularly of non-Olympian religion, on Greek thought was not adequately recognised until recent times. A revolutionary book, Jane Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, emphasised both the primitive and the Dionysiac elements in the religion of ordinary Greeks.

On the other hand, he seems perhaps to ascribe primitive thought amongst the Greeks to the influence of the mother:

We know more or less what an educated Greek learnt from his father, but we know very little of what, in his earliest years, he learnt from his mother, who was, to a great extent, shut out from the civilization in which the men took delight. It seems probable that educated Athenians, even in the best period, however rationalistic they may have been in their explicitly conscious mental processes, retained from tradition and from childhood a more primitive way of thinking and feeling, which was always liable to prove victorious in times of stress. For this reason, no simple analysis of the Greek outlook is likely to be adequate.

The chapter combines a summary of the early history of Greek religion, some commentary on religious dynamics (Russell was very familiar with Greek and Roman literature, and clearly here is sensitive to religious feeling), and some broad assertions on the significance of the development of Greek thought. Here is Russell’s quote from another work which claims that what flowered in Greece was distinct from similarly developed religious societies because of the introduction of science (no acknowledgment of gunpowder or Chinese astronomy here):

The most balanced statement known to me is in John Bumet’s Early Greek Philosophy, especially Chapter II, “Science and Religion.” A conflict between science and religion arose, he says, out of “the religious revival which swept over Hellas in the sixth century B.C.,” together with the shifting of the scene from Ionia to the West. “The religion of continental Hellas,” he says, “had developed in a very different way from that of Ionia. In particular, the worship of Dionysus, which came from Thrace, and is barely mentioned in Homer, contained in germ a wholly new way of looking at man’s relation to the world. It would certainly be wrong to credit the Thracians themselves with any very exalted views; but there can be no doubt that, to the Greeks, the phenomenon of ecstasy suggested that the soul was something more than a feeble double of the self, and that it was only when ‘out of the body’ that it could show its true nature.

[…]

It looked as if Greek religion were about to enter on the same stage as that already reached by the religions of the East; and, but for the rise of science, it is hard to see what could have checked this tendency. It is usual to say that the Greeks were saved from a religion of the Oriental type by their having no priesthood; but this is to mistake the effect for the cause. Priesthoods do not make dogmas, though they preserve them once they are made; and in the earlier stages of their development, the Oriental peoples had no priesthoods either in the sense intended. It was not so much the absence of a priesthood as the existence of the scientific schools that saved Greece.

I confess that even having listened to the chapter, and written these notes, I remain unsure of what the nature of this difference between the Ionian and Hellenic religions is, or how in particular it gave rise to science.

Russell gets into the science, and thence the philosophy, in the next chapter, but it seems that the core thesis of this chapter, and the reason to found the history on the contributions of the Greeks, is that this was the first civilisation to exalt rational thought and scientific enquiry outside of any stricture of dogma or religion. According to Russell, “Deductive reasoning from general premisses was a Greek innovation”. It would be interesting to know how, or indeed if, Greek philosophy is given similar precedence in the history of thought as taught outside of Europe etc.

This next passage reminded me of the romanticised notion of Ireland sometimes encountered in fiction, and perhaps our own brand of post-colonialism. I can’t deny some personal resonance here, as a passionate Irishman etc:

The success of Bacchus in Greece is not surprising. Like all communities that have been civilized quickly, the Greeks, or at least a certain proportion of them, developed a love of the primitive, and a hankering after a more instinctive and passionate way of life than that sanctioned by current morals. To the man or woman who, by compulsion, is more civilized in behaviour than in feeling, rationality is irksome and virtue is felt as a burden and a slavery.

It interests me that it is written from the point of view of a coloniser (at least by association), and I don’t think the English can be said to have been civilized quickly. Perhaps a sensitive type would discern an amused superiority, though I can imagine Russell passing similar judgement over his own society.

And on the lineage of religion.

Among Greek philosophers, as among those of later times, there were those who were primarily scientific and those who were primarily religious; the latter owed much, directly or indirectly, to the religion of Bacchus. This applies especially to Plato, and through him to those later developments which were ultimately embodied in Christian theology.

In Russell’s account, all religions start as fertility cults, for the encouragement of a good harvest, good breeding of livestock, and healthy progeny. It seems plausible that the mysteries of life would be central and inexplicable to early societies, and that rituals and superstitions might arise around them. I think that introducing religion to children, from a humanist perspective, could would start with fertility and the importance of procreation, connecting perhaps with the wonder of children in the face of these mysteries (life coming from life), and perhaps offering some account of how this might lead to the arcana and pomp of the Christian churches.

Here is the kind of sweeping paean to reason that perhaps marks the book as comfortably written from a bastion of good sense, in the grandiose terms which I personally find quite reassuring, but which can seem too categorical and logo- (Euro-?) centric from a relativist perspective:

The civilized man is distinguished from the savage mainly by prudence, or, to use a slightly wider term, forethought. He is willing to endure present pains for the sake of future pleasures, even if the future pleasures are rather distant.

(there’s plenty more in that vein throughout, which for me is a feature).

The chapter does present a history of religion in the area around Greece up to about 500BC, but it’s interspersed with entertaining asides, observations, and speculations. I’ve found it helpful to extract just the timeline, to give an overview:

The art of writing was invented in Egypt about the year 4000 B.C., and in Babylonia not much later.

The Egyptians were preoccupied with death, and believed that the souls of the dead descend into the underworld, where they are judged by Osiris according to the manner of their life on earth. They thought that the soul would ultimately return to the body; this led to mummification and to the construction of splendid tombs. The pyramids were built by various kings at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. and the beginning of the third. After this time, Egyptian civilization became more and more stereotyped, and religious conservatism made progress impossible. About 1800 B.C. Egypt was conquered by Semites named Hyksos, who ruled the country for about two centuries. They left no permanent mark on Egypt, but their presence there must have helped to spread Egyptian civilization in Syria and Palestine.

[…]

Babylonian religion, unlike that of Egypt, was more concerned with prosperity in this world than with happiness in the next. Magic, divination, and astrology, though not peculiar to Babylonia, were more developed there than elsewhere, and it was chiefly through Babylon that they acquired their hold on later antiquity. From Babylon come some things that belong to science: the division of the day into twenty-four hours, and of the circle into 360 degrees; also the discovery of a cycle in eclipses, which enabled lunar eclipses to be predicted with certainty, and solar eclipses with some probability. This Babylonian knowledge, as we shall see, was acquired by Thales.

The civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were agricultural, and those of surrounding nations, at first, were pastoral. A new element came with the development of commerce, which was at first almost entirely maritime. Weapons, until about 1000 B.C., were made of bronze, and nations which did not have the necessary metals on their own territory were obliged to obtain them by trade or piracy. Piracy was a temporary expedient, and where social and political conditions were fairly stable, commerce was found to be more profitable.

In commerce, the island of Crete seems to have been the pioneer. For about eleven centuries, say from 2500 B.C., to 1400 B.C., an artistically advanced culture, called the Minoan, existed in Crete. What survives of Cretan art gives an impression of cheerfulness and almost decadent luxury, very different from the terrifying gloom of Egyptian temples. […] It was a maritime civilization, in close touch with Egypt; the very considerable commerce between Egypt and Crete reached its maximum about 1500 B.C.

The Cretan religion appears to have had many affinities with the religions of Syria and Asia Minor, but in art there was more affinity with Egypt, though Cretan art was very original and amazingly full of life. The centre of the Cretan civilization was the so-called “palace of Minos” at Knossos, of which memories lingered in the traditions of classical Greece. The palaces of Crete were very magnificent, but were destroyed about the end of the fourteenth century B.C., probably by invaders from Greece.


The Cretans worshipped a goddess, or perhaps several goddesses. The most indubitable goddess was the “Mistress of Animals,” who was a huntress, and probably the source of the classical Artemis.

Hence the Minotaur, I guess—the bull of the Minoans.

Before the destruction of the Minoan culture, it spread, about 1600 B.C., to the mainland of Greece, where it survived, through gradual stages of degeneration, until about 900 B.C. This mainland civilization is called the Mycenaean; it is known through the tombs of kings, and also through fortresses on hill-tops, which show more fear of war than had existed in Crete. Both tombs and fortresses remained to impress the imagination of classical Greece. The older art products in the palaces are either actually of Cretan workmanship, or closely akin to those of Crete. The Mycenaean civilization, seen through a haze of legend, is that which is depicted in Homer.

There is much uncertainty concerning the Mycenaeans. Did they owe their civilization to being conquered by the Cretans? Did they speak Greek, or were they an earlier indigenous race? No certain answer to these questions is possible, but on the whole it seems probable that they were conquerors who spoke Greek, and that at least the aristocracy consisted of fair-haired invaders from the North, who brought the Greek language with them.

The first notable product of the Hellenic civilization was Homer. Everything about Homer is conjectural, but the best opinion seems to be that he was a series of poets rather than an individual. Probably the Iliad and the Odyssey between them took about two hundred years to complete, some say from 750 to 550B.C., while others hold that “Homer” was nearly complete at the end of the eighth century. The Homeric poems, in their present form, were brought to Athens by Peisistratus, who reigned (with intermissions) from 560 to 527 B.C. From his time onward, the Athenian youth learnt Homer by heart, and this was the most important part of their education.

Philosophy begins with Thales, who, fortunately, can be dated by the fact that he predicted an eclipse which, according to the astronomers, occurred in the year 585 B.C.

Going back to the development of religion:

Babylonia had a more warlike development than Egypt. At first, the ruling race were not Semites, but “Sumerians,” whose origin is unknown. They invented cuneiform writing, which the conquering Semites took over from them. […] Babylon became supreme and established an empire. The gods of other cities became subordinate, and Marduk, the god of Babylon, acquired a position like that later held by Zeus in the Greek pantheon. The same sort of thing had happened in Egypt, but at a much earlier time. The religions of Egypt and Babylonia, like other ancient religions, were originally fertility cults. The earth was female, the sun male. The bull was usually regarded as an embodiment of male fertility, and bullgods were common. In Babylon, Ishtar, the earth-goddess, was supreme among female divinities. Throughout western Asia, the Great Mother was worshipped under various names. When Greek colonists in Asia Minor found temples to her, they named her Artemis and took over the existing cult. This is the origin of “Diana of the Ephesians.” Christianity transformed her into the Virgin Mary, and it was a Council at Ephesus that legitimated the title “Mother of God” as applied to Our Lady. The oldest legal code still known is that of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, about 2100 B.C.; this code was asserted by the king to have been delivered to him by Marduk. The connection between religion and morality became continually closer throughout ancient times.

The introduction of Pan (the Wikipedia page on Pan has much more and is quite fun):

Then there were purely agricultural rural communities, such as the proverbial Arcadia, which townsmen imagined to be idyllic, but which really was full of ancient barbaric horrors. The inhabitants worshipped Pan, and had a multitude of fertility cults, in which, often, a mere square pillar did duty in place of a statue of the god. The goat was the symbol of fertility, because the peasants were too poor to possess bulls. When food was scarce, the statue of Pan was beaten. (Similar things are still done in remote Chinese villages.)

Pan, whose original name was “Paon,” meaning the feeder or shepherd, acquired his better known title, interpreted as meaning the All-God, when his worship was adopted by Athens in the fifth century (B.C.), after the Persian war.

And the significance of Bacchus:

There was, however, in ancient Greece, much that we can feel to have been religion as we understand the term. This was connected, not with the Olympians, but with Dionysus, or Bacchus, whom we think of most naturally as the somewhat disreputable god of wine and drunkenness. The way in which, out of his worship, there arose a profound mysticism, which greatly influenced many of the philosophers, and even had a part in shaping Christian theology, is very remarkable, and must be understood by anyone who wishes to study the development of Greek thought.


Dionysus, or Bacchus, was originally a Thracian god. The Thracians were very much less civilized than the Greeks, who regarded them as barbarians.

I remember seeing an exhibition of Thracian ruins in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, which was most impressive. Much was made, as I recall, of the fact that this advanced civilization predated that of the Greeks.

It seems unlikely that I would ever read more deeply into these topics (this book alone has about 50 chapters, and it leaves out all modern thought), but of the many trails and avenues for exploration indicated by this first chapter, I think I’d most like to read some Herodotus. Perhaps one day.

Comments

Recovering onward

Last week I was considering the broad theme of working on recovery, and specifically trying to reduce the problems of painful cold in the extremities. To attack this latter, I starting having 4-minute cold showers, and I think this may have helped a bit. I don’t feel that intense exothermism which I enjoyed with regular sea-swimming (t-shirts in November!), but it hasn’t hurt. It’s a gradual four minutes, working up from the feet with the hand-held shower head, rather than suddenly switching on the overhead head, or plunging into a cold bath, but it’s a start. I still hold sea-swimming in May as a target.

Heart-rate elevating exercise was the other desideratum, and I’ve done reasonably well with hitting the gym for some weightlifting most days (this is still only the very beginning). I’m basing my workouts on the StrongLifts 5×5 program (and app), and taking inspiration from listening to the Starting Strength audio book while heading to the gym. But perhaps the piece of reading which has been most helpful has been this article, which talks about having cold extremities, the gains in energy & metabolism from weightlifting, and most of all the slightly guilty feeling of not necessarily working flat out all the time, and not feeling exhausted as you leave the gym, but rather just trusting in the steady application of the programme and the progressive increase of the weights. It feels more manageable than previous efforts I’ve made to pursue fitness, especially as the routine need take only 20–40 minutes and can be done at any time of the day (and there is a well-equipped FlyeFit gym within about 5 minutes’ walk of my house).

Sadly I feel that some of this newfound capacity to go to the gym, where previously I would have felt too busy, stems from an abatement of aspirations (and also anxiety). Part of the arc here has been to relinquish the idea of doing any music practice, and then getting reconciled to feeling overwhelmed at work, and finally coming to feel that even if progress has halted on my personal projects, my work responsibilities, or most importantly my engagement with the family (“quality time” with the kids, etc), I may as well trudge down to the gym as anything else; nothing will drastically disimprove, and weightlifting with an audiobook does at least give the mind a break. This whole perspective is part of the broader mental health picture, and there may be hope in it—certainly I would feel a lot better if I felt even a little better, so to speak, and to wake up refreshed would be a dream; to feel a little energy would be most energizing. Perhaps weightlifting, along with the occasional short run, will move this closer.

For now, I think it better not to burden the gym-going with futurity, and instead try to do it as a matter of routine, as far as possible. So the goal for the week is to dissociate from gym-going affectively, and to cultivate it as simply something that happens.

Comments

Recovery

2022 is well underway. I finished cancer treatment at the start of 2019, so have been recovering for three years. This has not been an active recovery; I simply assumed that things would return to normal with the passing of time.

As it turns out, progress has been very unsteady, and I realise now that I need to undertake a more active approach to recovery, late in the day as it is. It seems to me now that the treatment, particularly the chemotherapy, knocked my system very much out of equilibrium, and my constitution was on the weaker side to begin with—and so, in some ways my health has been in decline over the last three years, rather than rebounding by itself.

I’ve had a lot of problems with fatigue, headaches, and muscle aches, and various mental health difficulties of some severity. This has impacted every aspect of life, and is not getting better by itself—so it’s time to take up some form of intervention.

I have to start with understanding what’s happening. I’ve found this past winter particularly hard going, and that’s led me to look into the cold-sensitivity aspects of chemotherapy, particularly Oxaliplatin. The symptom is called cold hypersensitivity, or cold dysesthesia, and it’s a hallmark of the damage to the peripheral nervous system caused by chemo. In the simplest terms, it means in cold conditions the fingers and feet feel painfully cold.

I often wear two jumpers, under-trousers, and sometimes two pairs of socks to try to stay warm in the colder months, and lately have taken to wearing light gloves as much as possible, to counter the effects. None of this is any great inconvenience, except sometimes for the gloves, and people do find the numerous layers a bit eccentric if it comes up. And I spend a lot of money on heaters and heating, which is a pretty manageable strategy, though the effects of the heat are soporific and the cost is certainly noticeable.

I think the bigger issue with cold dysesthesia is that if I don’t recognise it as a symptom peculiar to myself, I feel that it’s a simple matter of the weather being cold, when in fact my perception of coldness is very different from that of those around me. So it can sometimes seem to me madness to think of going outside, or even of living in Ireland in winter, when for others the weather is mild or at worst brisk.

I’ve done a little Googling about it and it seems that this is one of the common symptoms of peripheral sensory neuropathy (PSN) associated with Oxaliplatin, and it can persist for some years after treatment in 10–15% of patients (e.g. source). It’s somewhat helpful to be able to attribute this to treatment, rather than to general age and decrepitude.

In terms of what to do about it, I think the first thing is not to complain about the cold before anyone else! And instead to ensure that I have a good stock of vests, long-johns, and whatever other accommodations I can quietly incorporate. For immediate relief, I do find that squeezing and releasing the toes and fingers, doing a short burst of cardio, or working on a walking treadmill helps to keep it at bay. Painkillers also help. I’m assuming that activities to improve the circulation, such as cold baths and showers, will help in general, so that the body can keep the periphery warmer itself, and so I suppose I should try once more with the Wim Hof method. I used to enjoy sea swimming; I can’t imagine it at the moment, but perhaps I could ready myself for it by the summer. And of course, exercise in general is part of every prescription; I find it very hard to stick with but this cold / circulation business is more weight in favour on the scale (vs the considerable load on the inertia / stress / activity aversion on the other…).

So action items for the next weeks are exercise, with a focus on intensity to push the heart rate up (as ever); cold showers / baths with some frequency; organise gloves etc. And the goal is sea swimming in May.

Comments (1)

PDF booklets, watermarking

Given some black-on-white art to use as a watermark (PNG with transparent background), we can desaturate and apply as a watermark as follows (it’s necessary to set the background of the text PDF to transparent rather than white so that the watermark is visible behind the text):

convert clipart.png -negate -modulate 4 -negate watermark.pdf
convert -density 600 booklet.pdf -transparent white booklet.pdf
pdftk booklet.pdf multibackground watermark.pdf output out.pdf

Booklet printing in Preview enforces a border; better to export an ordinarily laid-out PDF and convert.  In Google Docs margins of 0.5″ all around, and setting paper size to A4, seems to work well.

pdf2ps booklet.pdf
psbook booklet.ps booklet.sigs.ps
psnup -Pa4 -2 booklet.sigs.ps booklet.2up.ps
ps2pdf booklet.2up.ps

Comments

Installing packages on Debian jessie Docker images

But really it’s time to go to stretch!
# https://lists.debian.org/debian-devel-announce/2019/03/msg00006.html
# https://unix.stackexchange.com/questions/508724/failed-to-fetch-jessie-backports-repository
# https://unix.stackexchange.com/questions/508757/the-repository-jessie-backports-release-does-no-longer-have-a-release-file

# RUN cat /etc/apt/sources.list
# deb http://httpredir.debian.org/debian jessie main
# deb http://httpredir.debian.org/debian jessie-updates main
# deb http://security.debian.org jessie/updates main
# deb http://httpredir.debian.org/debian jessie-backports main non-free
# RUN rm /etc/apt/sources.list
# RUN echo ‘deb http://archive.debian.org/debian jessie main non-free contrib’ > /etc/apt/sources.list
#RUN echo ‘deb http://archive.debian.org/debian jessie-backports main non-free contrib’ > /etc/apt/sources.list
# RUN echo ‘deb http://archive.debian.org/debian-security jessie/updates main non-free contrib’ > /etc/apt/sources.list
# RUN apt-get -o Acquire::Check-Valid-Until=false update

Comments

A note on colon cancer

A week or so ago I finished treatment for colon cancer. Happily my prognosis is very good and I am eager to consign the episode to the past as quickly and definitively as possible. But I think I should add my voice to those testimonials urging people to watch out for symptoms and to take them seriously. Discussion of this disease will necessarily be a little indelicate, and I would rather never speak of it again, so I’ll try to be brief.

The first symptom for me was an increase in urgency of bowel movements. This developed very slowly, over many years, and I didn’t really think about it as an issue with any wider implications. If I had had it checked out when, for example, my wife had suggested I have it checked out (4–5 years before my diagnosis), I could possibly have avoided surgery altogether.

The second symptom was bleeding with, and then independently of, bowel movements. Even though this was rather alarming, I somehow managed to procrastinate and delay a visit to the doctor for four months or so after the principal episode. Had I gone immediately to the doctor, I might have got away with a smaller surgical intervention, with smaller implications for the rest of life. Had I waited much longer, my prognosis could have been much worse.

When I finally did get to seeing a doctor, he was rather doubtful that anything serious might be amiss; my recollection is that his response was along the lines of ‘you can have a scope if it will set your mind at ease, but really you should be thinking of drinking more water and exercising’. Luckily I did insist on having the scope. The waiting list in the public service for colonoscopies is very long; I availed of my health insurance and had it done privately (in the Beacon) within a fortnight or so. I was very fortunate to be able to do this.

It seems beyond ridiculous now that I let stress, professional obligations, and general personal inertia impede the diagnosis in the face of the symptoms, the advice of my wife, and the numerous pieces of writing like this one that urge people to take these things seriously. One piece of the picture that I was missing was how assiduously the disease is to be avoided, or how worried one should be about cancer in general. I imagined, even after my own diagnosis, that essentially either you catch it early, and it gets cured, or it comes too late. But the cure is a pretty difficult process; it made for a long and miserable year for me and those close to me, and life will not be going back to the way it was before. So I would advise anyone reading this, and my younger self if I could, to sometimes worry a little more about health, and stay on top of it. Ignoring or suppressing concerns is easier in the short term but it has its limits.

My greatest good fortune was having my wife, family, and friends offer so much love and support over the year. I don’t know how I could have borne the treatment without them.

Comments

Reading The FT Weekend 7–8 July 2018

Brexit

May wins backing for ‘soft Brexit’

May delivers carefully planned political coup

JLR point man takes a blunt instrument to hard Brexit

Since this article, three ministers have resigned (Boris, David Davis, & Davis’ #2).  Good tactics by May in build up (weeks laying groundwork, few details released beforehand, isolating cabinet, no phones, taxi theatrics).  ‘Soft Brexit’ here means UK-EU FTA (“common rule book for industrial goods and agricultural products”, “more like Norway than Canada”, “backing of Airbus”) +  ‘facilitated customs arrangement’: Britain collecting EU tariffs at ports. The first is not acceptable for hard Brexiteers; the second is unlikely to wash with EU.  The implications for the Irish border seem to be along the lines of  ‘border down English channel’.  Barnier reaction: good, but further movement needed on freedom of movement and ECJ.

Also read today: Jenni Russel’s damning ‘Boris Johnson Has Ruined Britain‘ for the NYT.  This attributes Johnson’s resignation to a desire “not to be outflanked” on the Brexit side by Davis, and asserts that his Brexit advocacy has been pure bad-faith self-interest, without any initial expectation or desire of winning the referendum, to bolster his chances of becoming PM.

Ralf Speth, CEO Jaguar Land Rover, warned that hard Brexit would cost £1.2bn in tariffs and threaten UK perations.  JLR employs / supports 300k jobs in UK, previous undertaking of £80bn in future investment.  JLR acquired by Tata from Ford, Speth put in then.  Since then JV in China, large plant in Slovakia (others following, re: tariffs: “This week, Tesla announced its first factory outside the U.S. while BMW is poised to become the first foreign manufacturer to own majority control of a Chinese automobile venture.”).

 

Social welfare & progress

Clarke calls for new inquiry into UK’s role in rendition

Let me call those who argue that the record on human rights, corruption, foreign adventurism is equally bad (morally if not quantitatively) between the US, UK, EU on one hand, and Russia, China, etc., ‘equivalentists’ (I’m inclined against this view by disposition & superficial readings, but intend to read a bit more Chomsky to further inform).  This piece sits to some extent on both sides of the scale.  The parliament Intelligence and Security Committee accused Britain of “inexcusable” mistreatment of detainees: 128 incidents where UJ knew of mistreatment by others and  “31 examples where Britain planned, agreed, or helped pay for rendition flights.”  (So no direct implication that British agents tortured anyone themselves, though that is a distinction without a moral difference, I think).  At least there is some effort towards transparency, if not yet accountability.

ONS and BofE staff differ over ‘productivity puzzle’

I didn’t quite follow this but it’s of interest because productivity is such a key concept & metric.  The article speaks of Britain’s “dismal productivity record” and then says that the ONS sees few signs of improvement but the BofE is more optimistic.  Productivity is measured by output per hour worked.  The productivity growth rate has fallen from ~2% a year circa 2008 (pre-GFC) to less than 1%.  The agencies don’t seem to disagree on the statistics.  The ONS describe the low growth rate as puzzling because the growth rate in Britain has fallen more than elsewhere.  BofE said business are beginning to prioritise productivity improvements, especially labour-saving machinery (aided by “major advances in technology”).  But ONS says “companies that import and export heavily are more likely to be productivity stars, reflecting work that suggests open borders and trade encourage greater efficiency”.  This is described as a contradiction of the BofE analysis.  So I guess the contradiction is on the question of whether productivity is improved primarily by improving internal efficiency, or by seeking out & exploiting comparative advantage?

Precis of the link above: the key fact about productivity is that up to 1973, productivity and pay rose in lockstep; since 1973, productivity has risen by ~75% but pay has only risen by ~12%.  This is often attributed to union-busting.

Philanthropy group sets out to cajole wealthy to donate more

‘The Beacon Collaborative’ is the likely name for the initiative.  “The pair calculated the median level of giving among those with £1m-£10m in investable assets was just £500 a year.  Among the ultra wealthy with more than £10m — it is just £240.”

Define ‘robots’ before raising a tax on them

An option to maintain civic infrastructure in the face of automation is mentioned which is to tax at the value of the job replaced.  This is shown to be a canard: “specific tasks are automated, rather than the broad bundle of tasks that together constitute a human ‘job'”.  A relevant book is mentioned: The Future of the Professions, with many examples of automation including spreadsheets, CT scan analysis, and drafting of legal contracts.

Sleep deprived and struggling to stay sane

Claim from British Medical Association that “doctors working more than a 12-hour shift are as impaired as if they had been drinking”.  The Today programme on the BBC runs 12-hour day shifts and 14-hour night shifts!

 

Europe

Germany’s odd couple endure fiery political marriage

Angela Merkel – chancellor since 2005, head of Christian Democratic Union (CDU), amazing politician.  Horst Seehofer, head of Christian Socialist Party (CSU), Minister of Interior in the government formed after long negotiations between CDU, CSU, Social Democrats.  Long-standing differences over migration (CSU dominates Bavaria, harder line desired against immigrants, AfD on the rise on anti-immigrant platform).  Seehofer: “Islam does not belong in Germany”; Merkel: “Oh yes it does”.  Seehofer cultivating Orban, Putin.  Seehofer: “Migrants already registered at another EU country should be stopped at German border”; Merkel: “No, overruled; that would undermine Schengen & EU unity”.

Current immigration agreement: ‘transit procedures’ to deport incoming refugees already registered in EU to country of registration, but only after proposed bilateral deals with each such country, & proposed new treaty with Austria such that Austria takes those who won’t be taken by country of registration, or in absence of treaty with that country.  None of these treaties exist, Austria reportedly not keen.

Poland’s ‘accidental heroine’ buys time for EU

Jaroslaw Kaczynski is head of ruling Law and Order party (president is Andrzej Duda).  Jaroslaw is the identical twin brother of the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński.  The party has been orchestrating a purge of the judiciary by forcing ~24 Supreme Court Judges out with a new law declaring them retired.  But the head of the SC, Malgorzata Gersdorf, turned up and went to work anyway.  She will go on holiday next week, thus hopefully postponing a confrontation.  The European Commission wants to take Poland to the ECJ to block the law, but once the new SC judges are in, the purge will be irreversible.

US

Calls for Fed to rethink monetary policy framework as it unwinds balance sheet

Q: how to ensure the Fed’s target interest rate stays in desired range while unwinding balance sheet.  Unwinding: in 2018 the Fed will be a net seller of assets, for the first time since 2008, planning to sell $400bn assets in 2018.  Also ECB reducing Asset Purchase Programme from €60bn / month to €30bn / month.  This article is about ‘the technical difficulty of transmitting monetary policy’, i.e. effect of unwinding on markets.

See also ‘Call On Savings Equal To 1.6% Of GDP‘; ‘The case against shrinking the Fed’s balance-sheet‘.

Latin America

Boeing and Embraer trying to get a joint venture approved before Brazil goes to a very unpredictable election after Presidency of centre-right, business-friendly Michel Temer (government has golden share in Embraer).  ‘Populists’ (left & right) against, because of the extent of state ownership?  Election status: Jair Bolsonaro, far right, leading (possibly not against deal as defence / military component of Embraer not included in JV); Ciro Gomes, centre left, opposed to deal.

Read elsewhere meantime: “Why are there no black people in Argentina?

China

China financial turmoil revives memories of three years ago

“Weakness in both stocks and the renminbi is sparking comparisons with 2015 rout”.  The news is that theShanghai Composite Index has fallen by 5% in past 2 weeks, and one property index has dropped 16% in the same period.  The renminbi is down from 6.3 (to the dollar) to 6.65 since the start of the year, which is about a 5% drop.

In 2015, the Shanghai Composite Index fell by over 45% in two months, followed by a 10% drop in renminbi over 5 months.  Government intervention in stock market (state bailout / buyout / prop-up investment) initiated too early (‘government panicked even earlier than the market’).  This time, the Chinese government is waiting and letting the market absorb news of slowing economic growth and prospect of trade war.  Also the bubble, if bubble it be, is smaller: Shanghai stocks at 17x earnings vs 24x in June 2015.

The China Development Bank (main policy lender) is pulling back from subsidy programme for homebuyers, which was driving wild increases in sales & price (especially in regional cities – prices have doubled since 2016 in ‘third- and fourth-tier cities’.).  “Even a 10% price decline would ripple through China’s economy where property underpins manufacturing demand, debt collateral and local government budgets.”

For renminbi, ‘little sign of rampant capital flight’—which was a problem in 2015, leading to curtailment of foreign dealmaking.  Currently policymakers are trying to draw in foreign investment into domestic capital markets, which militates against capital controls.   The renminbi is under pressure because the Fed is raising rates while monetary easing in China is depressing renminbi interest rates; this is a departure from recent years in which interest available on renminbi was higher than that on the dollar.  Monetary policy can’t get too relaxed, as that would support property bubble.  People’s Bank of China has $3tn dollar reserves (down from $4tn 2016), which leaves limited scope for dollar selloff to support renminbi.

Wang’s death complicates HNA retrenchment efforts

Wang Jian, co-founder & chairman of HNA (airline-to-finance group, $50bn revenue, #170 in Fortune 500) fell to his death in accident on holiday in France.  Leaves Chen Feng, other co-founder, and Adam Tan, CEO, to handle company.  ‘Retrenchment’ here means the unwinding of foreign investments and holdings: “an international spending spree which ended just a year ago when the political winds in Beijing turned against such expansion.”  This included 10% of Deutsche Bank & controlling stake in Hilton Hotels (both since reduced).  Wikipedia: “In July 2017, HNA was targeted by the Central Government in a set of new measures that prohibit state-owned banks from lending money to Chinese private companies to curb their foreign investment activities and also over concerns about HNA’s debt levels.”

Africa

Namibia: wildlife tourism (shipwreck-strewn beaches).  Uranium, diamonds… and now oil and gas (Total, ExxonMobil coming in).  Geological formations in common with Brazil (‘pre-salt fields’).  Eco Atlantic Oil and Gas – holds offshore exploration acreage off Guyana and Namibia.  Apparently there is now a lot of demand for this exploration acreafe.  The ‘Walvis Basin’ is the thing.  The first well will be drilled by Tullow Oil in September.  “Tullow Oil plc is a multinational oil and gas exploration company founded in Tullow, Ireland with its headquarters in London, United Kingdom; Tullow Oil is a leading independent oil exploration and production company, focused on finding and monetising oil in Africa and South America”.  See also Chariot Oil and Serica Energy.

Trump

US labour market draws 600,000 new jobseekers

Percentage of US population in workforce (working or looking for work) at 62.9% (up 0.2%, or 600k – so population is ~300 million).  So unemployment rate up to 4%, but it’s a good up.  Wage growth only 2.7% on the year, below expectations, due to increased labour availability.  Implications: “muted wage growth” softens inflation, so reduces likelihood of Fed rate raise.  Dollar dropped, perhaps also due to trade disputes.  Markets up, treasuries yield down.  “Numbers support view that there is no imminent risk of inflation…but the Fed is going to continue with normalising interest rates”.  Proportion of small businesses looking to hire 4th highest in 45 years, suggesting new entrants to jobs market have good odds of getting work.

China retaliates against ‘bully’ Trump

Tariffs at $34bn each way.  Trump says he will add $16bn in coming weeks, and could go to full $500bn (all Chinese imports to US).  China targeting farm and energy exports (including soyabeans).  Jobs numbers (above) suggest econmoy can withstand tariffs, according to US.  Idea is to provoke negotiations to get better trade deals, rather than indefinite tariff regime (suggestions this working in Europe).

Investing

Dell relishes the prospect of proving his critics right

Dell is going public again.  Notice elsewhere: PC sales are up for the first time in ages, because of Windows 10?

Danske dented as claims of money laundering swirl

Bill Browder (Hermitage Capital, Magnitsky Act) is among those claiming that there has been major money laundering through Danske Estonia (perhaps $8.3bn).  Given Browder’s interest, maybe it’s Russian money laundering?

Carrefour and Tesco to join forces to squeeze suppliers

These are the two biggest supermarket groups in Europe.  This is to get bigger volumes & hence lower prices on own-brand goods, & thereby to counter / compete with the low prices of Aldi and Lidl.  Carrefour already has a deal with Système U, and French supers Casino and Auchan announced a similar deal last month.

This presumably will push for consolidation of agribusiness and larger-scale industrial farming.  I wonder do these trends have implications for the CAP?  Perhaps small-time farmers will become even more reliant on subsidies?  World dairy commodity prices enjoyed a very strong rally last year (especially butter), which has tapered more recently.

An audacious business model in the dock

Glencore hit by US probe into bribery and corruption

Glencore (IPO 2011, ~$60bn market cap, $200bn revenues) is the biggest commodity trader in the world.  A lot of its business, according to the FT, is brokering between business and sanctioned countries / companies / individuals — built initially on trades with Iran (Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich for this offence).

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the main source of cobalt (which has doubled in price, to $40, in two years) and a major source of copper.  President of DRC is Joseph Kabila; alleged that Glencore using Dan Gertler, an Israeli friend of Kabila, to gain access (Gertler is on US sanctions list).  The ins and outs are a bit complex, but “Glencore agreed to pay Gertler [almost $3bn] in euros to avoid falling foul of US sanctions […] The announcement shocked observers: a FTS 100 company paying a sanctioned individual millions of euros seen as a bold challenge to the US”.

Glencore has major oil trading operations in Venezuela and Nigeria.  These are both both major oil producers and major importers of refined fuels.  Large physical traders such as Glencore (6.5m barrels a day of crude & refined) alleged to have been using inside information, from Venezuela state oil co PDVSA.

M&S meal supplier’s travails highlight perils of price wars

Story is about closure of 2 Sisters Food Group factory in Glasgow.  2 Sisters owned by Ranjit Boparan and is one of the UK’s biggest food manufacturers (23k workers).  Boparan sold the Goodfellas brand recently (for £200m).  The extraordinary thing is that Boparan Holdings has an operating profit margin of 0.4% (down from 2.8% two years ago). Tight!

A worker is quoted saying that under previous ownership he made £360 / week, dropped to £267 under 2 Sisters (less overtime).  The FT is rather exercised by the tales of woe from temporary contract workers (zero-hour contracts) expecting 12-hour shifts but not getting them.  People speak of weekly earnings of £200, and rates of £6.50 an hour.

VW loses legal effort to bar use of seized files in emissions case

“VW said it welcomed the decision as it provided legal clarity ‘even though the court did not share Volkswagen AG’s understanding of the law'”. $26bn in penalties so far!

Stobart boardroom battle comes to a head at AGM

This is about the infrastructure group (Southend airport, biomass business, etc.) rather than Eddie Stobart transport.  The article is of interest because it’s clear that even at high levels of big business run by serious professionals, the personality clashes can bubble out into a right old argy.  Here the issue is that “former chief executive Andrew Tinkler launched a campaign to unseat chairman Iain Ferguson.”  William Stobart, son of Eddie, is a friend of Tinkler; Ferguson is not for going.  Tinkler was fired as director after efforts to remove Ferguson.

Decom eyes £58bn market to plug North Sea wells

The big business opportunity described here is cleaning up the old oil wells.  Poses some interesting challenges; originally Fairfield Energy was going to try to buy up and exploit North Sea oil, but oil crashed in 2014, and they ‘pivoted’ to buying up clapped out fields and seeing them out.

Decommissioning is only getting going — 50 years’ worth of wells, platforms, pipes in North Sea.  Big platforms and rough seas.  Who pays for decom?  It must be a regulatory obligation.  The article speaks of the ended viability of ‘spreadsheet decommissioning’.

Segro rides warehouse boom to join real estate big league

The growth of fulfillment centres  & warehouse retail has meant that RE holdings in city peripheries are becoming much more desirable & valuable.  This article relates that Segro (“which owns warehouses in the UK and Europe”) has overtaken British Land (“one of the largest retail landlords”) to become second-largest REIT (£6.8bn market cap, second to Landsec).  Amazon is mentioned, also ‘Yoox Net-a-Porter’ (?), fast-food chains preparing meals in warehouses, and data centres.  Capital values for industrial land rising at 15% annually.  In Europe, online shopping lags UK but gathering pace: Segro buying up in Italy, Spain, Germany; trading at 1.16 price-to-assets.  Smaller players: LondenMetric (1.09), Tritax Big Box (1.07); cf Landsec & British Land at < 0.7.

Medical

Pfizer risks US backlash with series of price rises

Some medicines (e.g. Viagra) up 20% in price since start of year; most price increases around 9% (cf inflation 2%).  Pfizer: increases to less than 10% of drugs.  No account of why here.  Lower medicine prices was a campaign pledge of Trump, which resulted in a plan in May “dismissed as toothless.”

Misc

Biogen shares soar after clinical trial raises hope for Alzheimer’s treatment

‘Biogen’ is the name of a company, not a term for some sort of biomedical engineering.  It’s a big one: 18% increase in shares equates to ~$10bn increase in market cap.  Results were obtained with another big medical co, Japan’s Eisai.  Seems to reinform ‘beta amyloid plaque build-up’ hypothesis for the cause of Alzheimer’s, after failures from other market participants.

Q: What constitutes a ‘big company’?  Global market cap is about $100tn.  Apple, world’s biggest, is or has been nearly $1tn.  The FT Global 500′ ranks by market cap; the top 5 at latest are Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, & Facebook ($500–$900bn).  The ‘Fortune Global 500’ measures by revenue; the top 5 are very different (Walmart, State Grid, Sinopec, China National Petroleum, and Toyota Motors), with revenues from $250–$480bn.  Global world product is also about $100tn (that is sum of profits rather than sum of revenues—I must clarify this for myself).

No hosepipe ban for most despite long hot summer

Companies rule out drought despite dry spell

While the Irish experience of privatised refuse collection seems to have been terrible, and the English experience of privatised rail abysmal, the privatised water supply in the UK would appear to have coped better with the current heatwave than our nationalised system.  Of course, conditions probably were and are somewhat different in terms of winter rainfall etc.  But part of the resilience of the network is attributed to water metering, “which reduces water usage”.  There are problems of leakage, especially Thames Water, which “leaks about 40% of the average daily water consumption of a four-person household” — by which I think they must mean ‘40% of the a.d.w.c. of an f-p.h. is waste’? — and the plan is to introduce smart meters, “which can cut household consumption by about 15 per cent.”

Article mentions daily consumpution per person is 141 litres/day, down from 150 litres in 2000.  Compare to 115 litres/day in Belgium & Denmark.  In 2016, Ireland’s PCC was 118 litres/day [ref]; ‘almost half’ of the water supply is lost to leaks [ref].

World week in review

Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría and Pablo Casado battle to succeed Mariano Rajoy as head of People’s Party (‘PP’, conservative, largest party).  Winner to lead opposition to recently-elected minority socialist government.  Regional elections next year.

Najib Razak (‘Mr. Najib’), ex-PM, pleads not guilty to charges relating to $4.5bn from Malaysian state investment fund (1MDB).  Current PM, driving investigation, is Mahathir Mohamad.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, new left-wing Mexico president-elect, called for reconciliation with “crushed” rivals.

Emmerson Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe as head of Zanu-PF and president.  Nelson Chamisa, challenging, wants preparations halted until ballot paper fully agreed.  Zanu-PF promise fair election.

Editorial

FT is in favour of EU copyright reform proposals, on the grounds that the platforms were given exemptions from policing content in the early days and have obtained unfair advantage over traditional media (& content producers) thereby.  YouTube controls 60% of streaming audio “but only” pays 11% of artist revenues.

Eurozone wage growth up to 2% (5 years into recovery).  France & Germany especially, up there with Canada in post-GFC growth, 10% over ten years (US: 5%), in real terms.  However this latest increase is just about in line with inflation.  Danger that ECB might cite this growth as a reason to normalise monetary policy: raise interest rates and shrink balance sheet (sell assets or let bonds mature without re-issue).  OECD: wages are “remarkably more sluggish than before crisis”, at comparable levels of employment (high employment emboldens workers to seek wage rises).

Wage inflation need not mean price inflation; “wages could rise more if productivity growth picks up, or income shifts from capital to labour.  Both would represent a desirable reversal of former trends” (right on, FT!).  Causes of productivity slowdown: drop in capital investment during crisis.  Pre-GFC:, profit share of national income rising (“Germany’s policy in early 2000s to depress the labour share of income bears much of the blame for the financial bubbles in the periphery” — TODO: unpick this).

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Words

heteroclite: adj: abnormal or irregular n: abnormal thing or person, an irregularly declined word, especially a Greek or Latin noun. (‘clite’ from ‘klitos’ — inflected)

bosky: covered by trees or bushes; wooded.

usufruct: the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.

aphetism: the loss of an initial unstressed vowel in a word, as squire for esquire.

saponified: the chemical reaction that occurs when a vegetable oil or animal fat is mixed with a strong alkali. The products of the reaction are two: soap and glycerin.

doughty: brave and persistent (archaic, humorous).

panegyric: public speech or published text in praise of someone or something.

dithyrambist: a writer or performer of dithyrambs (dithyramb: a wild choral hymn of ancient Greece, especially one dedicated to Dionysus; a passionate or inflated speech, poem, or other writing).

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Some productivity bits

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Strange wildcard behaviour in cmd.exe?

E:\hugh\music\TW_analysis>dir *22*wav
Volume in drive E has no label.
Volume Serial Number is 88A2-A44C

Directory of E:\hugh\music\TW_analysis

06/12/2010 12:42 4,030,672 section_60pc_11_12.wav
06/12/2010 12:44 1,587,244 section_80pc_12.wav
06/12/2010 12:41 4,675,324 section_50pc_12_13.wav
06/12/2010 12:45 1,508,344 section_80pc_17.wav
06/12/2010 12:43 1,665,924 section_70pc_7.wav
06/12/2010 12:47 1,164,912 section_100pc_21_22.wav
06/12/2010 12:41 2,329,780 section_50pc_21_22.wav
06/12/2010 12:42 1,941,488 section_60pc_21_22.wav
06/12/2010 12:43 1,664,140 section_70pc_21_22.wav
06/12/2010 12:45 1,456,128 section_80pc_21_22.wav
06/12/2010 12:46 1,294,344 section_90pc_21_22.wav
11 File(s) 23,318,300 bytes
0 Dir(s) 8,391,557,120 bytes free

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