Virus Diary III

As long as we’re shut in with time on our hands, here is another installment of a sort of rolling diary to consider consequences of the virus. It’s true that with a virus that spreads exponentially, each day’s events seem like a week’s worth. Things we speculated a week ago now look naïve. Still.

Today is the first day of Monday, 23 March, 2020:

• Everything about the novel coronavirus is novel. Branko Milanovic points out that here we have a problem of both supply and demand. Expanding on a thought in Virus Diary II, he injects time as a variable. “If national governments can control or overcome the current crisis within the next six months or a year, the world would likely return to the path of globalization….” But if not, not.

“The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it….”

• If nature is exacting revenge for human-induced climate change, as some suggest, it’s doing it in an odd way, chasing people away from public transportation.

• Still, the virus by all rights ought to boost trust in experts, a reasonable and modest enough idea that UK politician Michael Gove, our American president and a cadre of Republicans have methodically batted at for years. Benefit: Climate Change.

• Christine Wilkie writes that “the ‘us vs. them’ approach to Washington and the federal government, on which the president has built his political brand” in fact, his entire public persona is gone. Entirely undermined.

I think if we’re all in this together, down the road a few beneficial changes will be hard to deny, like the prohibition of tax buy backs. Our pro-business president supports the idea, and I’m guessing even the most pro-business congresspeople can be shamed into it. More medium-term goal: worker representation in the boardroom. Over the horizon: replacing some of the more craven aspects of healthcare for profit with real, straight-up needs-based care.

• For now an us vs. them frontier sentiment bubbles to the top. In Scotland, the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford MP warns people off heading to Scotland to self-isolate:

“I urge everyone to do the right thing; follow the government advice and please do not travel here. If these warnings are not heeded and people need to be stopped from travelling, then I am afraid that is what will have to happen. Those in camper vans please go home!”

• We’re all Social Democrats now. For the moment. Today,

“France’s relatively generous welfare state and the state’s broad authority to enact pressure on employers appear far more like advantages than deficiencies — as signs of modernity, not outdatedness.”

Meanwhile,

“’For the first time in our history, the government is going to step in and pay people’s wages,’” the British chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak,

said last week.

• When the world emerges from the rubble, two books for guidance: 1946, The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen and Year Zero by Ian Buruma.

• One more thing: everybody’s hair is going to get a lot longer. And there will be more beards.

Please share your thoughts, and take care.

 

Here are the first and second Virus Diary installments.

A Reading List in the Time of Coronavirus

All right, all right, it really does look like we’re all going to have to enjoy spring after being dragged inside (cozier if you’re south of the equator, winter coming on). If that’s what we’re facing, here are a half dozen books I can recommend for your quarantine time:

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk • Nobel prize winner for literature, clever, engaging fiction.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris • The latest from a brilliant writer. It’s not what you think.

Prisoner by Jason Rezaian • Memoir of the former Washington Post reporter’s time in an Iranian prison.

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa • Tough stuff about the Syrian civil war.

The Capital by Robert Menasse • Acerbic portrait of the function, and disfunction, of the EU in Brussels.

The Salt of the Earth by Jósef Wittlin • Classic novel of a Polish peasant’s experience in World War One.

And here are a few waiting on my bookshelf. Since we were planning to be in Africa this spring, here are three books that were to be background for the trip:

A Grain of Wheat by Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o • Classic story of late colonial Kenya.

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma • The facts of life in modern Zimbabwe.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste • I loved Ms. Mengiste’s 2011 Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. This one’s about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.

And one more, a new release:

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon • Story of three orphaned kids in 1960s Laos.

At least we can enjoy traveling the world through books this spring, while staying indoors. And not touching our faces.

If you read any of these books please send your feedback.

Getting to Greenland: Book Excerpt

Here is an excerpt from my book Out in the Cold, in which we arrive in Greenland and try to sort out what to do next. Enjoy it:

GETTING TO TASIILAQ

First thing we have to do, we have to find Robert.

The men smoking outside the concrete block terminal are not Robert so I ask around inside. The man behind the check-in counter might as well be collecting Arctic tumbleweeds. No flights are pending; no one is checking in.

He does not know Robert.

Together we lean over his counter to look down to the harbor. One boat is speeding away and there don’t seem to be any others. He flips his palms up and shakes his head, “I think you just go down there and wait. That is your only chance.”

•••••

Humans inhabit the fringe, the perimeter of Greenland not flattened by the ice cap, and I mean flattened, literally. Even with its thinning, ice reaches three kilometers deep at its thickest, pushing the bedrock into the mantle such that if the ice disappeared, the island would become an archipelago.

You can’t fly to Tasiilaq, the biggest town on the eastern side of Greenland, for lack of sufficient flat space for an airstrip. So we have flown to a gravel strip called Kulusuk Airport. To get to Tasiilaq we must traverse the mouth of the Ammassalik fjord. We booked that online and all we know is, get to Kulusuk and ask for Robert.

We can see our destination twenty kilometers across the fjord behind a few icebergs and a coastline of precambrian rock thrust from the sea long before humanity, possibly even contemporaneous with the first life on Earth.

We invade and insult the silence with our prissy roll aboard carry-on bags, scraping and skipping the damned things down the rough gravel. Show more respect and stand still, and the quiet closes up around you as a vehement, absolute thing.

A man from Cologne with a massive backpack walks ahead of us. He has arrived with no itinerary beyond walking for two weeks. His pack reaches up past his head, bulging with two weeks of freeze-dried food and powdered milk.

Once he walked from Ilullisat to Sisimiut in western Greenland, and that is far, far farther than from here to Tasiilaq and then clear around the island, but that time he was advised that there was no danger of polar bears and he has yet to be so advised here. His itinerary may have to be revised based on local information. Right now he plans to circumambulate Ammassalik Island. He puts great store in the advice of Robert, but none of us know how to find him.

Airport to harbor, perhaps a twenty-minute walk. No boats in sight. Either side of the gravel path, just rock and a little but not much tenacious flora. Our destination across the water is low and bare with mountains rising snow-capped, glaciers embedded toward the top. Clouds tease the ridges but do not suggest a threat of rain. In between individual icebergs, not a field, rise like several-story buildings.

It turns out that two tiny Danish-built fiberglass Poca speedboats, so low slung that the dock hides them both, bob in the sea beyond the dock. Two Greenlandic men stand down there on the shore below the dock, neither in so much as a jacket, enjoying the northern summer.

We ask, “Robert?” and the younger man, with no English, shakes his head no, “Christian.” We and the backpacker, who is expecting the same ride, are at a bit of a loss until we work out, through gestures and goodwill, that Christian is here on behalf of Robert. For us, that is good.

The dock is too high for the boats, and so we scramble down onto rocks to climb aboard and Christian takes the backpacker, Mirja and me screaming across the fjord toward a similar spot on the far shore. Christian, hair stood up to a greased crown, drives standing, and stops us dead in the water alongside this iceberg, then that one, so we can take photos.

We clamber out on a rock where there is no dock at all. Christian motions without words, “up that way,” and makes no move to leave the boat. So off we scramble, not having paid anybody for anything, off to find someone who wants our money. Robert, maybe.

The Inuit seldom keep individual dogs as pets, but rather tether them in groups outside in summer, and we rouse the mild attention of a pack of tethered dogs as we troop up the hill. Inuit sled dogs have two layers of fur, the inner short, like wool for insulation, and the outer longer, coarser and water repellent. That may make them hot today, but overall they are surely chillin’, taking the warm season off, lounging all day except when growling and snapping over territory.

Sled Dog Greeting at Tasiilaq

A vehicle makes its way down the hill picking its path, for the way is gravel and bumpy. A slight girl stops to ask that we wait here, drives down the road to drop some camping supplies and returns to drive us to the Red House, a tour shop and hostel run by the famous Robert.

Robert’s reputation should have preceded him. Turns out in 1983, extreme explorer Robert Peroni from the Italian south Tyrol walked across the Greenland ice cap, all the way across the island at its widest point, some 1,400 kilometers, on an 88-day journey. 

Now 72, Robert stands before us trim and erect, and above all relieved to find we aren’t planning to stay in his hostel, for he is booked solid as he would hope to be in a very short high season. We pay him for the crossing from Kulusuk, bid farewell, and the girl drives us up the hill to the Hotel Angmagssalik.

•••••

There was a time when airline passengers celebrated successful landings. I remember applause in 1986 when my Lufthansa flight landed in Frankfurt from Moscow. I thought it was as likely for getting the bloody hell out of the Soviet Union.

We came over from Iceland today on a brand new, gleaming Air Iceland Bombardier Q400 prop plane, twenty rows two-by-two. Bustling their baby refreshment cart up and down the aisle meant actual work for the flight attendants, compared to the doorman role they play on short domestic flights.

Come time to land, the plane took on a buzz incongruent with today’s humdrum air travel. In a small plane you’ve more of a sense of flying, and when the pilot maneuvered to dip under the clouds and between the mountains, we all craned to be the first to see icebergs, and phone cameras filled the windows. The runway at Kulusuk came up fast and we rode it right to the end lights.

About fifty of the seventy aboard were here for a day trip. Over in the morning, touch the soil, check Greenland off your list and fly back. I met a taxi driver in Reykjavik who said he did as a fifteen year old.

What did they do?

They deplaned, someone took them around the side of the terminal and they watched a man in a costume play a drum and a fat woman dance.

Some months ago he drove a man to do the same and picked him up later that day. What did they do? A drum and a dance.

•••••

Order the whole book here in the U.S. or from Amazon in your country.

Tasiilaq town

The approach to Tasiilaq from Iceland in high summer

Weekend Reading

A few interesting articles to enjoy with your favorite beverage this weekend:

A Total Solar Eclipse Feels Really Weird by Bob Berman in Wired
The End of “Here and Now” by Alexandra Samuel in JSTOR Daily
The Omnipresence of Dust in Kathmandu by Abby Seiff at psmag.com
Will Russia Interfere In The Finnish Presidential Election by Pekka Virkki in Up North magazine
How to kill a dinosaur in 10 minutes by Paul Braterman at 3quarksdaily
The Haunted Mind: The Stubborn Persistence of the Supernatural by Bo Winegard and Ben Winegard at quillette.com

Weekend Reading

It’s a long weekend for many here in the USA, so here’s a whole batch of articles to take with you to the pool.

The Lunar Sea by Ferris Jabr in Hakai Magazine
The Rise of the Thought Leader by David Sessions in the New Republic
The New Working Class by Gabriel Winant in Dissent
Amazon Robots Poised to Revamp How Whole Foods Runs Warehouses by Spencer Soper at Bloomberg.com
The deal that’s destroying Russia’s roads at meduza.io
Trump and the Trumpists by Wolfgang Streeck at inference-review.com
When Pedestrians Ruled the Streets by Clive Thompson at Smithsonian
Paying a Price for 8 Days of Flying in America by Sarah Lyall in the New York Times

Big, Important Writers Embarrassing Themselves

Robert W. Merry is Political Editor at the ‘realist’ web site The National Interest. He has written an article, The Ghosts of World War I Circle over Ukraine, posted to the site today. Here is a screen grab of the first paragraph:

MerryScreenShot

Any introductory college geography course would have explained to Mr. Merry that “accretion” as defined by Merriam Webster, is “a gradual process in which layers of a material are formed as small amounts are added over time: something that has grown or accumulated slowly: a product or result of gradual growth.”

In the interest of using a big, fancy-sounding word, Mr. Merry has written exactly the opposite of what he meant. One good thing about the internet though, you can fix it before too many people notice. The pertinent line now reads “World outrage has focused on Russian president Vladimir Putin to such an extent that Putin has suffered a huge loss of moral authority.”

Pompous: “Accretion.” Better: “Loss.”

Then there’s Robert D. Kaplan.

Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History by Robert D Kaplan was essential reading during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s for Americans like me (and then-President Clinton) to whom the region was foreign, distant and exotic (It opened up a world of further great books, like Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Gray Falcon and The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric, all of which would be timely and absorbing reads in this centennial summer of the outbreak of the Great War – in the Balkans).

Mr. Kaplan has his critics (1234 et al, but especially Tom Bissell), but he has been prolific and influential ever since Balkan Ghosts, traveling widely – and often to frightening places – and publishing more than a dozen books.

Too bad though, maybe that ‘The President Read My Book’ thing got too far into Mr. Kaplan’s head. Take a look at a column from July 10th by RDK headlined Why Moldova Urgently Matters. It begins this way “NATO’s Article 5 offers little protection against Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Iulian Fota, Romania’s presidential national security adviser, told me on a recent visit to Bucharest.” Right. Got it. Nowadays RDK meets with the Romanian Foreign Minister.

Next RDK quotes the Foreign Minister and then tells us what the Foreign Minister meant. Continue reading