Journalists would be better served by picking up a $6 Kindle edition of the relevant VSI volume instead

April 2nd, 2020

As February turned to March, T. Greer realized he needed a better understanding of epidemics and disaster response:

It was clear to me then that the coronavirus was going to blow up in my own country, that I was going to be voicing opinions about it, and that in consequence I had a responsibility to inform myself as well as I could within the constraints of my budget and schedule. I wanted a stronger grounding in the history and past examples of American disaster response and the basics of epidemiology. Towards that end I bought about ten books, seven of which I have now finished. I do not have time to review them at all length, but I can provide some capsule-reviews for people who are interested in reading more on these topics themselves.

Christian McMillen’s Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction and Marta Wayne and Benjamin Bolker’s Infectious Disease: A Very Short Introduction are both excellent little primers. I am an unabashed fan of the Very Short Introduction series. Their basic idea is to find a noted expert in topic X and have them write an accessible-yet-intelligent 100-150 page introduction of their topic of expertise. Many journalists and commentators who spend several hours trawling Wikipedia whenever a new topic hits the news cycle would be far better served by picking up a $6 Kindle edition of the relevant VSI volume instead. These two books are oddly complimentary: McMillen is a historian, and his Very Short Introduction is focused on the social history of past pandemics. Wayne and Bolker are an ecologist and geneticist, respectively, and their focus is on modeling the dynamics of disease growth. McMillen devotes chapters to the bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, influenza, and AIDS; Wayne and Bolker also provide 20-page summaries of various diseases, their case studies being influenza, HIV, cholera, malaria, and Bd (the fungal disease wiping out many of the world’s amphibious populations). Together the two books provide a solid introduction to how various types of diseases work and the history of human attempts to treat or contain them.

The coronavirus economy lives on in suspense, not free fall

April 1st, 2020

The economy today lives in suspense, not free-fall , Vernon L. Smith suggests:

Not all markets, however, are born equal. Laboratory experiments for goods that cannot be re-traded easily converge to their predicted supply-and-demand equilibrium under conditions of strictly private dispersed information. Their counterpart in the economy, markets for nondurable consumer goods, are a rock of stability. Moreover, these markets are very large, constituting 75% of private product (gross domestic product less government expenditures).

In sharp contrast, laboratory studies of asset markets persistently yield price bubbles in environments with perfect information on fundamental value. Moreover, experiments prove that this propensity to bubble is precisely and only because the items are re-tradable. These studies helped us to understand why all market economic instability arises from durable goods markets, especially housing-mortgage markets, as we have seen in the Great Recession and in the Depression when house prices fell against mortgage debt, plunging households into negative equity. Homeowners, living in houses worth less than what they owe the bank do not feel buoyantly prosperous. The experiments also helped us to understand why security markets are so volatile, but are not a fundamental source of instability, like housing, because securities market loans are short-term callable loans, investor balance sheets are marked steadily to market as prices decline, and there is no build-up of negative equity to dampen long-term expectations.

I believe the economy today lives in suspense, not free-fall. The pandemic will pass; public health institutions have been a model of forthright dissemination of information on the spread of this disease and sanitary procedures to minimize its impact. It’s the citizenry that has been unruly for a time. Supply chains will refill and stabilize quickly, as the pandemic passes, securities markets will recover, and growth will continue to reduce poverty everywhere. Homes are more valuable than ever as a haven of safe and secure living. Provided that we continue to buy them with some of our own money, homes will be part of a secure future.

I have ascended to the third order of magnitude

March 31st, 2020

I have ascended to the third order of magnitude. I have 1,000 Twitter followers:

Isegoria 1,000 Followers

Lone Rick and Morty

March 29th, 2020

The new Rick and Morty Samurai & Shogun short is an homage to classic samurai movies — and hyper-derivative anime, as well:

The “classic” it borrows most from is (or was) known in English as Shogun Assassin:

Now it’s known as Lone Wolf and Cub.

We would find ourselves with an atomised society in which no one felt he had any duty to anyone else

March 29th, 2020

Years ago, back in 2004, Anthony Daniels (perhaps better known as Theodore Dalrymple) picked up a book by André Maurois, published in 1931, called L’Amerique Inattendue. Maurois, who had taken a position teaching French literature at Princeton, preferred the character of the Americans in adversity to that in triumphal materialistic optimism:

I felt distinctly uncomfortable while reading Maurois. I am no economist and am not qualified to opine on economic affairs. Yet we seem to me to have been conducting ourselves in Britain as if the present economic climate will continue forever, regardless of what we do, as if there were no tomorrow, or at least no tomorrow that might be very different from today. On the one hand, our boom requires that we spend, or it comes to an end; on the other, we shall have nothing for our old age if we do.

Our public life is frivolous, but frivolous without gaiety. It is also earnest without being serious. The Chancellor, Mr Brown, warned us recently of the threat that China and India posed to our prosperity. We cannot compete with those countries in cost of labour, of course; but their success is based not just on cheap labour, but on a powerful combination of cheap labour and an educational system that is far more serious than ours. While we — that is to say, the government of which Mr Brown is a prominent member — are so obsessed with supposed social justice that we are prepared to tolerate any degree of mediocrity, India and China foster talent in a very Darwinian fashion, in the hope and expectation that everyone will benefit in the long run. Before long, there will be nothing that we can do better than they.

At the same time, we have destroyed, or at least undermined, all forms of social solidarity other than handouts from the state. If ever there should be a serious downturn in our economic fortunes, which would not be unprecedented in history after all, we would find ourselves with an atomised society in which no one felt he had any duty to anyone else. Widespread social, or rather antisocial, disturbances might very well result.

By the time I had finished Maurois’s forgotten but suggestive little book, I was almost trembling with fear.

You just need to turn off the central air conditioning

March 27th, 2020

The cordon sanitaire that began around Wuhan and two nearby cities on Jan. 23 helped slow the virus’s transmission to other parts of China, but didn’t really stop it in Wuhan itself:

Instead, the virus kept spreading among family members in homes, in large part because hospitals were too overwhelmed to handle all the patients, according to doctors and patients there.

What really turned the tide in Wuhan was a shift after Feb. 2 to a more aggressive and systematic quarantine regime whereby suspected or mild cases—and even healthy close contacts of confirmed cases—were sent to makeshift hospitals and temporary quarantine centers.

The tactics required turning hundreds of hotels, schools and other places into quarantine centers, as well as building two new hospitals and creating 14 temporary ones in public buildings. It also underscored the importance of coronavirus testing capacity, which local authorities say was expanded from 200 tests a day in late January to 7,000 daily by mid-February.


In New York City, federal authorities plan to set up mobile hospitals, with a total capacity of 1,000 beds, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. New York has also been looking into converting entire hotels into hospitals, but it is unclear how many beds will be made available.

Zhang Jinnong, head of the emergency department at Wuhan’s Xiehe Hospital, said the most important thing was to separate the infected from the healthy, and recommended hotels as quarantine centers where people could be isolated in separate rooms.

“You just need to turn off the central air conditioning,” he said.


South Korea, which has tested more people than any other country, originally tried to hospitalize all confirmed cases. But as wards became overloaded, from March 1 it divided coronavirus patients into four categories: asymptomatic, mild, severe and critical.

Only severe and critical cases were hospitalized, while mild and asymptomatic cases were placed in makeshift hospitals known as “residential treatment facilities.”

In Singapore, all suspected cases have been isolated in hospitals, while close contacts of confirmed cases have been systematically tracked and quarantined in government-run facilities or at home.


Another critical factor was the deployment to Wuhan of thousands of extra doctors and nurses from elsewhere in China. Among them was Meng Xinke, a doctor from the intensive care department of the No. 2 People’s Hospital in Shenzhen.

He arrived in Wuhan on Feb. 9 and was put to work in an exhibition center newly transformed into a makeshift hospital with 40 doctors and 1,461 beds, for confirmed mild coronavirus cases. Separating milder cases “is a great way to save resources,” he said, adding that five doctors were able to look after 400 patients during each shift.

His daily routine included checking patients’ vital signs, giving them medication, conducting tests, and identifying those developing severe symptoms. After about two weeks, he said, his team noticed that about 10%-15% of patients discharged from some makeshift hospitals were later testing positive again—a possible indication they hadn’t fully cleared the virus.

On Feb. 22, Wuhan required all discharged patients to go to quarantine sites for another two weeks instead of heading home.

It’s just a very fancy and expensive surgical mask

March 26th, 2020

Is it true that the public won’t be able to use N95 respirators correctly? Yes, Scott Alexander says:

I remember my respirator training, the last time I worked in a hospital. They gave the standard two minute explanation, made you put the respirator on, and then made you go underneath a hood where they squirted some aerosolized sugar solution. If you could smell the sugar, your respirator was leaky and you failed. I tried so hard and I failed so many times. It was embarrassing and I hated it.

I’m naturally clumsy and always bad at that kind of thing. Some people were able to listen to the two minute explanation and then pass right away. Those kinds of people could probably also listen to a two minute YouTube explanation and be fine. So I don’t want to claim it’s impossible or requires lots of specialized background knowledge. It’s just a slightly difficult physical skill you have to get right.

Bunyan et al, 2013, Respiratory And Facial Protection: A Critical Review Of Recent Literature, discusses this in more depth. They review some of the same studies we reviewed earlier, showing no benefit of N95 respirators over surgical masks for health care workers in most situations. This doesn’t make much theoretical sense – the respirators should win hands down.

The most likely explanation is: doctors aren’t much better at using respirators than anyone else. In a California study of tuberculosis precautions, 65% of health care workers used their respirators incorrectly. That’s little better than the general public, who have a 76% failure rate.


Is a poorly-fitting N95 respirator better than nothing? The reviewed studies suggest that at that point it’s just a very fancy and expensive surgical mask.

N95 versus KN95

March 26th, 2020

3M has a recent technical bulletin that spells out the subtle differences in filtering facepiece respirator classes, such as FFP2, KN95, and N95 — and the differences are very, very subtle. Namely, the N95 masks that are out of stock across the country are indistinguishable from the KN95 masks that are sitting on the shelves, but the N95 masks are certified for use in the US medical system, and the KN95 masks are certified for use in China:

This document is only intended to help clarify some key similarities between such references, specifically to the following FFR performance standards:

  • N95 (United States NIOSH-42CFR84)
  • FFP2 (Europe EN 149-2001)
  • KN95 (China GB2626-2006)
  • P2 (Australia/New Zealand AS/NZA 1716:2012)
  • Korea 1st class (Korea KMOEL – 2017-64)
  • DS (Japan JMHLW-Notification 214, 2018)

As shown in the following summary table, respirators certified as meeting these standards can be expected to function very similarly to one another, based on the performance requirements stated in the standards and confirmed during conformity testing.

N95 Masks versus Comparables

Trump’s early adopters were alarmed over coronavirus

March 25th, 2020

When T.A. Frank’s coronavirus monitoring first kicked into gear, it was thanks to alarming tweets from Mike Cernovich in January:

Because I’d spent several frightening weeks in China and Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak in 2003, I needed no further encouragement to obsess over something reminiscent of it. In the weeks that followed, I began to look for the pronouncements of others who were most out in front of the pack in expressing concern. These included angel investor Balaji S. Srinivasan, geneticist Razib Khan, Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, Trump White House veteran Steve Bannon, Ars Technica cofounder Jon Stokes, Quillette editor Claire Lehmann, entrepreneur Jeff Giesea, author Matt Stoller, and Fox host Tucker Carlson. All of them, I noticed, stood at least a little outside of the mainstream. And a fair number of them were associated with the grassroots energy of Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.

Here’s what was curious about this final point. Donald Trump, as we all know, spent several weeks downplaying the coronavirus problem and two crucial weeks, starting on February 26, when he suggested the number of cases was soon “going to be down to close to zero,” in outright denial. A whole host of Trump supporters joined the president in pooh-poohing the problem. “Healthy people, generally, 99% recover very fast, even if they contract it,” offered Fox’s Sean Hannity on March 10. Lots of man in the street Trump supporters were just as dismissive. But people like Bannon and Cernovich were not at all on board with Trump’s sinking ship of a message, and in some ways they’re more Trumpist than Trump. What, then, was the difference between Trumpists who followed the president into denial and Trumpists who, 180 degrees to the contrary, were in a vanguard of alarm?

It took me some thought and conversations about this question before I came up with an answer that turned out to be simple: It was Trump’s early adopters, the ones who supported him before he looked like a winner to the rest of the world, who were ahead of the average in expressing alarm over the coronavirus. It was Trump’s late adopters, the ones who would have lined up behind any Republican in power, who carried water for the message of denial.

In fact, the model does a very good job

March 25th, 2020

Peter Turchin presents a variant of a standard epidemiological model, known as SIRD (so named for the first letters of the variables it tracks: the numbers of Susceptible, Infected, Recovered, and Dead), applied to South Korea’s Covid-19 epidemic:

We want to make sure that the model does a good job approximating a variety of different angles from which an epidemic can be viewed. The next series of charts show whether the model succeeds in this. Points are the actual data, while curves depict model predictions.

Turchin Covid Models for South Korea

In fact, the model does a very good job. This increases our confidence that it has captured the essential mechanisms driving the epidemic. And we only need to add two additional features to the basic SIRD model to do this.

The key parameter in the model is the transmission rate, which determines how fast the disease spreads from the infected population to that of susceptibles. The second important parameter is the detection rate. Both of these parameters changed during the epidemic. As is well known, once the South Korean officials realized that they have an epidemic to deal with, they massively expanded their testing program and imposed vigorous quarantine measures. These measures should have increased the detection rate and decreased the transmission rate. Building these changes into the model, we can estimate when and how much these two rates changed.

Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone

March 24th, 2020

David Quammen’s 2012 book Spillover charts the ecology and spread of “zoonoses,” diseases transmitted between animals and humans, and makes these four points:

Prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best.

Zoonotic spillovers will keep coming, as long as we drag wild animals to us and split them open.

A tropical forest, with its vast diversity of visible creatures and microbes, is like a beautiful old barn: knock it over with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust.

Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone.

He knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them

March 24th, 2020

After visiting the flying island of Laputa, Gulliver visits the grand academy of Lagado:

This academy is not an entire single building, but a continuation of several houses on both sides of a street, which growing waste, was purchased and applied to that use.

I was received very kindly by the warden, and went for many days to the academy. Every room has in it one or more projectors; and I believe I could not be in fewer than five hundred rooms.

The first man I saw was of a meagre aspect, with sooty hands and face, his hair and beard long, ragged, and singed in several places. His clothes, shirt, and skin, were all of the same colour. He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers. He told me, he did not doubt, that, in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate: but he complained that his stock was low, and entreated me “to give him something as an encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers.” I made him a small present, for my lord had furnished me with money on purpose, because he knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them.

I went into another chamber, but was ready to hasten back, being almost overcome with a horrible stink. My conductor pressed me forward, conjuring me in a whisper “to give no offence, which would be highly resented;” and therefore I durst not so much as stop my nose. The projector of this cell was the most ancient student of the academy; his face and beard were of a pale yellow; his hands and clothes daubed over with filth. When I was presented to him, he gave me a close embrace, a compliment I could well have excused. His employment, from his first coming into the academy, was an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food, by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odour exhale, and scumming off the saliva. He had a weekly allowance, from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.

I saw another at work to calcine ice into gunpowder; who likewise showed me a treatise he had written concerning the malleability of fire, which he intended to publish.

There was a most ingenious architect, who had contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downward to the foundation; which he justified to me, by the like practice of those two prudent insects, the bee and the spider.

There was a man born blind, who had several apprentices in his own condition: their employment was to mix colours for painters, which their master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my misfortune to find them at that time not very perfect in their lessons, and the professor himself happened to be generally mistaken. This artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole fraternity.

In another apartment I was highly pleased with a projector who had found a device of ploughing the ground with hogs, to save the charges of ploughs, cattle, and labour. The method is this: in an acre of ground you bury, at six inches distance and eight deep, a quantity of acorns, dates, chestnuts, and other mast or vegetables, whereof these animals are fondest; then you drive six hundred or more of them into the field, where, in a few days, they will root up the whole ground in search of their food, and make it fit for sowing, at the same time manuring it with their dung: it is true, upon experiment, they found the charge and trouble very great, and they had little or no crop. However it is not doubted, that this invention may be capable of great improvement.

I went into another room, where the walls and ceiling were all hung round with cobwebs, except a narrow passage for the artist to go in and out. At my entrance, he called aloud to me, “not to disturb his webs.” He lamented “the fatal mistake the world had been so long in, of using silkworms, while we had such plenty of domestic insects who infinitely excelled the former, because they understood how to weave, as well as spin.” And he proposed further, “that by employing spiders, the charge of dyeing silks should be wholly saved;” whereof I was fully convinced, when he showed me a vast number of flies most beautifully coloured, wherewith he fed his spiders, assuring us “that the webs would take a tincture from them; and as he had them of all hues, he hoped to fit everybody’s fancy, as soon as he could find proper food for the flies, of certain gums, oils, and other glutinous matter, to give a strength and consistence to the threads.”

There was an astronomer, who had undertaken to place a sun-dial upon the great weathercock on the town-house, by adjusting the annual and diurnal motions of the earth and sun, so as to answer and coincide with all accidental turnings of the wind.

I was complaining of a small fit of the colic, upon which my conductor led me into a room where a great physician resided, who was famous for curing that disease, by contrary operations from the same instrument. He had a large pair of bellows, with a long slender muzzle of ivory: this he conveyed eight inches up the anus, and drawing in the wind, he affirmed he could make the guts as lank as a dried bladder. But when the disease was more stubborn and violent, he let in the muzzle while the bellows were full of wind, which he discharged into the body of the patient; then withdrew the instrument to replenish it, clapping his thumb strongly against the orifice of then fundament; and this being repeated three or four times, the adventitious wind would rush out, bringing the noxious along with it, (like water put into a pump), and the patient recovered. I saw him try both experiments upon a dog, but could not discern any effect from the former. After the latter the animal was ready to burst, and made so violent a discharge as was very offensive to me and my companion. The dog died on the spot, and we left the doctor endeavouring to recover him, by the same operation.

I visited many other apartments, but shall not trouble my reader with all the curiosities I observed, being studious of brevity.

I had hitherto seen only one side of the academy, the other being appropriated to the advancers of speculative learning, of whom I shall say something, when I have mentioned one illustrious person more, who is called among them “the universal artist.” He told us “he had been thirty years employing his thoughts for the improvement of human life.” He had two large rooms full of wonderful curiosities, and fifty men at work. Some were condensing air into a dry tangible substance, by extracting the nitre, and letting the aqueous or fluid particles percolate; others softening marble, for pillows and pin-cushions; others petrifying the hoofs of a living horse, to preserve them from foundering. The artist himself was at that time busy upon two great designs; the first, to sow land with chaff, wherein he affirmed the true seminal virtue to be contained, as he demonstrated by several experiments, which I was not skilful enough to comprehend. The other was, by a certain composition of gums, minerals, and vegetables, outwardly applied, to prevent the growth of wool upon two young lambs; and he hoped, in a reasonable time to propagate the breed of naked sheep, all over the kingdom.

We crossed a walk to the other part of the academy, where, as I have already said, the projectors in speculative learning resided.

The first professor I saw, was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, “Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”

I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, “if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine;” the form and contrivance of which I desired leave to delineate on paper, as in the figure here annexed. I told him, “although it were the custom of our learned in Europe to steal inventions from each other, who had thereby at least this advantage, that it became a controversy which was the right owner; yet I would take such caution, that he should have the honour entire, without a rival.”

We next went to the school of languages, where three professors sat in consultation upon improving that of their own country.

The first project was, to shorten discourse, by cutting polysyllables into one, and leaving out verbs and participles, because, in reality, all things imaginable are but norms.

The other project was, a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great advantage in point of health, as well as brevity. For it is plain, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lungs by corrosion, and, consequently, contributes to the shortening of our lives. An expedient was therefore offered, “that since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on.” And this invention would certainly have taken place, to the great ease as well as health of the subject, if the women, in conjunction with the vulgar and illiterate, had not threatened to raise a rebellion unless they might be allowed the liberty to speak with their tongues, after the manner of their forefathers; such constant irreconcilable enemies to science are the common people. However, many of the most learned and wise adhere to the new scheme of expressing themselves by things; which has only this inconvenience attending it, that if a man’s business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged, in proportion, to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us, who, when they met in the street, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burdens, and take their leave.

But for short conversations, a man may carry implements in his pockets, and under his arms, enough to supply him; and in his house, he cannot be at a loss. Therefore the room where company meet who practise this art, is full of all things, ready at hand, requisite to furnish matter for this kind of artificial converse.

Another great advantage proposed by this invention was, that it would serve as a universal language, to be understood in all civilised nations, whose goods and utensils are generally of the same kind, or nearly resembling, so that their uses might easily be comprehended. And thus ambassadors would be qualified to treat with foreign princes, or ministers of state, to whose tongues they were utter strangers.

I was at the mathematical school, where the master taught his pupils after a method scarce imaginable to us in Europe. The proposition, and demonstration, were fairly written on a thin wafer, with ink composed of a cephalic tincture. This, the student was to swallow upon a fasting stomach, and for three days following, eat nothing but bread and water. As the wafer digested, the tincture mounted to his brain, bearing the proposition along with it. But the success has not hitherto been answerable, partly by some error in the quantum or composition, and partly by the perverseness of lads, to whom this bolus is so nauseous, that they generally steal aside, and discharge it upwards, before it can operate; neither have they been yet persuaded to use so long an abstinence, as the prescription requires.

He was universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid person among them

March 23rd, 2020

While visiting the flying island of Laputa, Gulliver finds himself “little regarded,” because of his unimpressive mathematical and musical abilities:

On the other side, after having seen all the curiosities of the island, I was very desirous to leave it, being heartily weary of those people. They were indeed excellent in two sciences for which I have great esteem, and wherein I am not unversed; but, at the same time, so abstracted and involved in speculation, that I never met with such disagreeable companions. I conversed only with women, tradesmen, flappers, and court-pages, during two months of my abode there; by which, at last, I rendered myself extremely contemptible; yet these were the only people from whom I could ever receive a reasonable answer.

I had obtained, by hard study, a good degree of knowledge in their language: I was weary of being confined to an island where I received so little countenance, and resolved to leave it with the first opportunity.

There was a great lord at court, nearly related to the king, and for that reason alone used with respect. He was universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid person among them. He had performed many eminent services for the crown, had great natural and acquired parts, adorned with integrity and honour; but so ill an ear for music, that his detractors reported, “he had been often known to beat time in the wrong place;” neither could his tutors, without extreme difficulty, teach him to demonstrate the most easy proposition in the mathematics. He was pleased to show me many marks of favour, often did me the honour of a visit, desired to be informed in the affairs of Europe, the laws and customs, the manners and learning of the several countries where I had travelled. He listened to me with great attention, and made very wise observations on all I spoke. He had two flappers attending him for state, but never made use of them, except at court and in visits of ceremony, and would always command them to withdraw, when we were alone together.

I entreated this illustrious person, to intercede in my behalf with his majesty, for leave to depart; which he accordingly did, as he was pleased to tell me, with regret: for indeed he had made me several offers very advantageous, which, however, I refused, with expressions of the highest acknowledgment.

On the 16th of February I took leave of his majesty and the court. The king made me a present to the value of about two hundred pounds English, and my protector, his kinsman, as much more, together with a letter of recommendation to a friend of his in Lagado, the metropolis. The island being then hovering over a mountain about two miles from it, I was let down from the lowest gallery, in the same manner as I had been taken up.

The continent, as far as it is subject to the monarch of the flying island, passes under the general name of Balnibarbi; and the metropolis, as I said before, is called Lagado. I felt some little satisfaction in finding myself on firm ground. I walked to the city without any concern, being clad like one of the natives, and sufficiently instructed to converse with them. I soon found out the person’s house to whom I was recommended, presented my letter from his friend the grandee in the island, and was received with much kindness. This great lord, whose name was Munodi, ordered me an apartment in his own house, where I continued during my stay, and was entertained in a most hospitable manner.

The next morning after my arrival, he took me in his chariot to see the town, which is about half the bigness of London; but the houses very strangely built, and most of them out of repair. The people in the streets walked fast, looked wild, their eyes fixed, and were generally in rags. We passed through one of the town gates, and went about three miles into the country, where I saw many labourers working with several sorts of tools in the ground, but was not able to conjecture what they were about: neither did observe any expectation either of corn or grass, although the soil appeared to be excellent. I could not forbear admiring at these odd appearances, both in town and country; and I made bold to desire my conductor, that he would be pleased to explain to me, what could be meant by so many busy heads, hands, and faces, both in the streets and the fields, because I did not discover any good effects they produced; but, on the contrary, I never knew a soil so unhappily cultivated, houses so ill contrived and so ruinous, or a people whose countenances and habit expressed so much misery and want.

This lord Munodi was a person of the first rank, and had been some years governor of Lagado; but, by a cabal of ministers, was discharged for insufficiency. However, the king treated him with tenderness, as a well-meaning man, but of a low contemptible understanding.

When I gave that free censure of the country and its inhabitants, he made no further answer than by telling me, “that I had not been long enough among them to form a judgment; and that the different nations of the world had different customs;” with other common topics to the same purpose. But, when we returned to his palace, he asked me “how I liked the building, what absurdities I observed, and what quarrel I had with the dress or looks of his domestics?” This he might safely do; because every thing about him was magnificent, regular, and polite. I answered, “that his excellency’s prudence, quality, and fortune, had exempted him from those defects, which folly and beggary had produced in others.” He said, “if I would go with him to his country-house, about twenty miles distant, where his estate lay, there would be more leisure for this kind of conversation.” I told his excellency “that I was entirely at his disposal;” and accordingly we set out next morning.

During our journey he made me observe the several methods used by farmers in managing their lands, which to me were wholly unaccountable; for, except in some very few places, I could not discover one ear of corn or blade of grass. But, in three hours travelling, the scene was wholly altered; we came into a most beautiful country; farmers’ houses, at small distances, neatly built; the fields enclosed, containing vineyards, corn-grounds, and meadows. Neither do I remember to have seen a more delightful prospect. His excellency observed my countenance to clear up; he told me, with a sigh, “that there his estate began, and would continue the same, till we should come to his house: that his countrymen ridiculed and despised him, for managing his affairs no better, and for setting so ill an example to the kingdom; which, however, was followed by very few, such as were old, and wilful, and weak like himself.”

We came at length to the house, which was indeed a noble structure, built according to the best rules of ancient architecture. The fountains, gardens, walks, avenues, and groves, were all disposed with exact judgment and taste. I gave due praises to every thing I saw, whereof his excellency took not the least notice till after supper; when, there being no third companion, he told me with a very melancholy air “that he doubted he must throw down his houses in town and country, to rebuild them after the present mode; destroy all his plantations, and cast others into such a form as modern usage required, and give the same directions to all his tenants, unless he would submit to incur the censure of pride, singularity, affectation, ignorance, caprice, and perhaps increase his majesty’s displeasure; that the admiration I appeared to be under would cease or diminish, when he had informed me of some particulars which, probably, I never heard of at court, the people there being too much taken up in their own speculations, to have regard to what passed here below.”

The sum of his discourse was to this effect: “That about forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion, and, after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region: that these persons, upon their return, began to dislike the management of every thing below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado; and the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom without such an academy. In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair: that as for himself, being not of an enterprising spirit, he was content to go on in the old forms, to live in the houses his ancestors had built, and act as they did, in every part of life, without innovation: that some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same, but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant, and ill common-wealth’s men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.”

His lordship added, “That he would not, by any further particulars, prevent the pleasure I should certainly take in viewing the grand academy, whither he was resolved I should go.” He only desired me to observe a ruined building, upon the side of a mountain about three miles distant, of which he gave me this account: “That he had a very convenient mill within half a mile of his house, turned by a current from a large river, and sufficient for his own family, as well as a great number of his tenants; that about seven years ago, a club of those projectors came to him with proposals to destroy this mill, and build another on the side of that mountain, on the long ridge whereof a long canal must be cut, for a repository of water, to be conveyed up by pipes and engines to supply the mill, because the wind and air upon a height agitated the water, and thereby made it fitter for motion, and because the water, descending down a declivity, would turn the mill with half the current of a river whose course is more upon a level.” He said, “that being then not very well with the court, and pressed by many of his friends, he complied with the proposal; and after employing a hundred men for two years, the work miscarried, the projectors went off, laying the blame entirely upon him, railing at him ever since, and putting others upon the same experiment, with equal assurance of success, as well as equal disappointment.”

In a few days we came back to town; and his excellency, considering the bad character he had in the academy, would not go with me himself, but recommended me to a friend of his, to bear me company thither. My lord was pleased to represent me as a great admirer of projects, and a person of much curiosity and easy belief; which, indeed, was not without truth; for I had myself been a sort of projector in my younger days.

Plundering words from India

March 22nd, 2020

As I mentioned, I’ve been enjoying the audiobook version of Sharpe’s Tiger, and I was surprised to learn that the word loot was borrowed from Hindi. It’s included in this list of words English owes to India:

A – atoll, avatar
B – bandana, bangle, bazaar, Blighty, bungalow
C – cashmere, catamaran, char, cheroot, cheetah, chintz, chit, chokey, chutney, cot, cummerbund, curry
D – dinghy, doolally, dungarees
G – guru, gymkhana
H – hullabaloo
J – jodhpur, jungle, juggernaut, jute
K – khaki, kedgeree
L – loot
N – nirvana
P – pariah, pashmina, polo, pukka, pundit, purdah, pyjamas
S – sari, shampoo, shawl, swastika
T – teak, thug, toddy, typhoon
V – veranda
Y – yoga

Most of those are clearly Indian, but plenty surprised me — bandana, catamaran, cheetah, cot, cummerbund, dinghy, jungle, and pundit.

The king has two methods of reducing them to obedience

March 22nd, 2020

In Gulliver’s Travels the flying island of Laputa floats above the realm of Balnibarbi:

If any town should engage in rebellion or mutiny, fall into violent factions, or refuse to pay the usual tribute, the king has two methods of reducing them to obedience. The first and the mildest course is, by keeping the island hovering over such a town, and the lands about it, whereby he can deprive them of the benefit of the sun and the rain, and consequently afflict the inhabitants with dearth and diseases: and if the crime deserve it, they are at the same time pelted from above with great stones, against which they have no defence but by creeping into cellars or caves, while the roofs of their houses are beaten to pieces. But if they still continue obstinate, or offer to raise insurrections, he proceeds to the last remedy, by letting the island drop directly upon their heads, which makes a universal destruction both of houses and men. However, this is an extremity to which the prince is seldom driven, neither indeed is he willing to put it in execution; nor dare his ministers advise him to an action, which, as it would render them odious to the people, so it would be a great damage to their own estates, which all lie below; for the island is the king’s demesne.