Modest Expectations 263 – A Frank Commentary

An Easter Poem

Albino afro

            He sit in clink

His eyes a salmon pink


Pigmented Southern gent

            He sit in cell

With TB racked adrenal

Jaundiced fundamentalist

            He sit in gaol

His shrivelled liver up for sale

The custodian on his plinth

            He who cry perfection

I am up for re-election

And who am I to release unto you

            And they as one cried

He who washes white

Release him, the white

            Because white is safer

Just as the Communion wafer

The three men

            There chained are led out

The restless mass as one do shout    

No that is not what we mean

             His colour out of whack

                        You take him back

and tar him pitch black.

When I was a small boy, I remember my mother had a beautiful amber necklace, the colour of which was not too dissimilar from that of the Roman perfume pot (pictured above) in the British Museum, except that the necklace was more translucent. When she rubbed it with a piece of fur, she demonstrated how the amber attracted a small flake of paper. To a small boy who had never heard of an electrostatic charge, it was magical. I was just observing what the Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus had first observed around 600BC.

Amber has always been a favourite gem of mine. As I reported in an earlier blog, the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace in St Petersburg, 30 kilometres south of the city, is a dazzling exercise in butterscotch amber although it is a reconstruction (the Nazis having removed the original room which was never found).

Amber, the resultant of the fossilisation of pine resin millions of years ago, is found on the Baltic Coast. (It is also mined in the Dominican Republic, the source of blue amber and in Myanmar). Visiting Latvia even today, the amount of amber fashioned into cheap jewellery and trinkets is everywhere. The Latvian amber is opaque and what I would call custard yellow. I don’t find it appealing, but perhaps I was just exposed to touristy dross.

Based on the age of the amber bead, the researchers speculate that it may have reached Spain via the ancient trade networks of the Sepulcros de Fosa culture, which arose in Catalonia during the Middle Neolithic period before disappearing between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.

To the archaeological experts of that period, it has just expanded knowledge of the range of European trade in the Neolithic period. One can still see evidence of this neolithic Catalonian culture in the funerary objects and the evidence of cave habitation. It should be realised that when our forbears linked the Aboriginal people to the Stone Age, they undervalued the level and sophistication of communication between these people, already culturally different, where language was one point of this differentiation. However, trade was one means that the various groups began to accommodate to this cultural diversity.

There are currently about 7000 languages spoken around the world, but this number is probably down from the peak of human linguistic diversity which occurred around 10,000 years ago, just before the agricultural revolution. Before that time, all human groups had been hunter-gatherers, living in small mobile tribal societies. Farming societies were demographically more prosperous and group sizes were larger than among hunter-gatherers, so the expansion of agriculturalist settlement likely replaced many smaller linguistic groups.

Today, there are few hunter-gatherer societies left and so our linguistic diversity reflects this European agricultural past. The Australian continent was the end of the line, and when an Aboriginal person boasts that his people are the oldest civilisation, he or she is saying that the civilisation is the oldest, unchanged.  There are 250 Aboriginal languages for about one million people, which tends to agree with generalisation above about hunter-gatherers (145 of these languages are still spoken).

The amber traders five millennia ago were part of a civilisation that vanished in what we call progress, but others may not. It serves to illustrate that the Aboriginal people did not conform to the whitefella progress to what is termed “civilisation”.

They developed a complex society based on being hunter-gatherers; so much so, for instance, that there was no drive to invent bows and arrows (one of the few peoples living on a land which was both tropical and temperate, coastal and desert – and where winter was comparatively mild.) White Australia failed to recognise this complexity and stigmatised them as “Stone Age” people.

This plaintive cry that the Aboriginal people did develop a post-agricultural revolution culture seems akin to the cultural cringe, which inflict some of our Australian whitefellas of Anglo-Celtic stock who have longed for the climate and mores of ‘The Old Country”.

You know being able to grow root crops was somewhat an advance on felling a wallaby at fifteen metres with a boomerang, where we whitefellas could not even see the animal. But we whitefella post-agriculturalists could plant root crops; obviously making us so less primitive. Really?

As for the Dark Emu, “Bruce, pull the other tuber – and by the way would you like a bush tomato, you know, the amber-coloured one. No need to have a sabbatical on banks of the Tigris now.”

The Most Over-Governed Parish in The World?

There he was – a man who plays the screen villain so well with a voice as beautifully modulated as that of Peter Lorre or Alan Rickman. I had sometimes wondered “Where was Eric?”

But no, on election night, we were witnessing the revenant, Eric. He was there in all his distinct personae, carefully reinterpreting fact persuasively to his extreme positions. He was this “partial” commentator, being broadcast nationally on “impartial” ABC television.

But then Eric is from “aways”, like we are. All Tasmanian invaders. Eric was more exotic, born in Stuttgart. His German lineage is what may be conservatively described as “right wing”. For example, quoting Wikipedia, Eric’s great uncle, Otto Abetz, was a Nazi SS officer, German ambassador to Vichy France, and a convicted war criminal. Eric’s grandfather was Karl Abetz, a professor of forestry science, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and became general consultant to the Reich Forestry Office in 1942.

But back to the main narrative. I advised Bill Snedden to develop a Tasmanian strategy after the 1974 election. I had noted there had been large swings in three of the electorates. Under the Australian Constitution each of the founding States was guaranteed at least five electorates. This led over time to the number of voters in each of the five Tasman electorates being far fewer than those of any electorate on the mainland. While other electorates could be created, modified or deleted, those in Tasmania remained much the same.

At that time in 1974 Tasmania was blessed with 79 local government areas, but Snedden wrote to each, specifying that “we were here to help”. He appointed one senior opposition politician to be in charge of the portfolio, Bob Ellicot. Labor held all five seats then, and it seemed to be a rational policy to entice Tasmanians to vote for the Coalition. Given how close the numbers in the House of Representatives were, call it “cynical” or “bribery”, it worked when the Bass by-election was called the next year with the retirement of Lance Barnard. Subsequently at the 1975 Federal election, all the seats became Liberal.

The fact that a military equivalent of a drover’s dog from aways won the Bass by-election reflected the neglect the Whitlam administration (he had excluded Barnard from discussions on the proposed 25 per cent tariff cut because it affected garment workers in Launceston) for Tasmania. The landslide victory in Bass was several months too late for Snedden’s survival.

But back to the main narrative. As one perspicacious commentator has said: “minority government is one that the majority of voters do not want.” I suspect it was Bob Brown, who consolidated this thread in Tasmanian politics by his fierce independence.

Tasmania has been lampooned as the place where if there was a tree, cut it down, especially native tree; if it was a river, dam it, and if it was a native animal, kill it. I remember when the sawmillers and the Hydroelectric Commission (HEC) ruled the State. Then there was the Mount Lyell mine, which turned Queenstown into a moonscape and the minerals used in the extraction of the copper and silver polluted the King River and Macquarie Harbour to such an extent that it was estimated that would take 200 years to clear up the pollution.

Then there was the annual Avoca wallaby shoot, counterpointed by the guilt realised of having rendered the Tasmanian tiger extinct by 1936. For years the Tasmanian press was full of reports about the sighting of this extraordinary marsupial. But these have gone more or less quiet. All that is left is the unwritten requiem.

But back to the main narrative of the recent election. Here there were two leaders. One, the Labor leader Rebecca White who has never had a real job; the Coalition Premier, Jeremy Rockliff, a farmer on a family property in northern Tasmania. Jeremy had alerted the wider global audience to spending $12m on a chocolate fountain, the enchantment of a Cadbury monument to dairy chocolate in the lead up to the election.

That aspiration was coupled with a proposal to build a huge stadium to be used a few times a year in a prime Hobart location – for an Australian Football League based in Jolimont Melbourne Victoria. This AFL office is in a choice location, so why should not a putative stadium for the Tasmanian Tigers be equally well located?

But then the AFL handed its clubs a total of $393m in funding for the 2023 season, and still made a profit of $27m. What about the foetal Tasmanian Tigers? The AFL could fund the stadium in say, Glenorchy, on cheaper land. The Premier before the election was acting like one of the “joy boys” – the cheerleaders for the Jolimont jock-strappers. There is a pathetic aspiration of wanting to be loved by the players, to rub shoulders with the liniment of champions. Will a billion dollars do?

Well, Jeremy did lose the election with a swing against his Willie Wonka aspirations – only lost 12 per cent. But he retained government.

The method of voting, the Hare-Clark system, used to elect seven members for each of the electorates based on their Federal counterparts leaves the eventual election result taking several weeks to emerge. Eighteen is the magic number for election; it was clear early in the count that no Party would reach that figure.

Labor did miserably, but the Greens picked up five seats. In other words, these two parties which have been in an uneasy alliance before totalled fifteen seats between them. As with most matters in Tasmania there are a couple of maverick independents. But then there is the charismatic populist. Jacqui Lambie is the classic authoritarian personality, who in the end will “piss” her erstwhile followers off by her actions.

Not that she isn’t smart, but one witnessed her having three of her acolytes elected in the Tasmanian election, while at the same time breaking up with her colleague in the Senate. She publicly boasts that her Jacqui Lambie Network has no policies. It exists because “La Duchessa’ is just her – a media apparition with a distinct personality and a voice which epitomises the knockabout Australian larrikin.

Yes, I do love Tasmania. It gives you everything, good and not so good, as long as you stay for enough time.

I Will Not Fly Qantas, Until They Boot Out the Joyce Clones

I remember the worst flight I ever experienced was between Townsville and Cairns in November 1956. I have written about it elsewhere, but in short, I was a passenger on TAA DC4-Skymaster, which ran into an electrical storm. Being unpressurised, the plane could not ascend above it; nor for that matter fly under it. It was dark, but I remember still clearly the beautiful sunset at the Townsville airport before embarkation. There was no hint of what was to come.

TAA DC4-Skymaster

In that year, over 400 people died in commercial flight accidents, the largest loss of life being over the Grand Canyon when two commercial airliners collided with 128 people killed. There was one fatal accident in Australia when a Royal Flying Doctor plane crashed with five on board near Derby. All died.

It was a time when flying was not as safe as it has been up until now, even though the number of flights was far less.

I used to travel over 50,000 airmiles a year, even after I retired before Covid intervened. I was a Qantas Platinum frequent flyer with a substantial cache of frequent flyer points. I never had any doubts about the safety of the airline, although I noticed that the standards in the cabin had begun to slip; damaged seats not fixed, inflight screens that did not work. The meals were increasingly frugal, and the leg room increasingly modelled on that provided for Irish leprechauns. The number of staff to assist seemed to melt away. Delay between anything happening increased.

It was about this time that I needed assistance, and as much as the ground staff tried, often I wondered whether I had been forgotten. My plight symbolised the Joycean fanatical cost cutting affecting customer service. The further one got away from this person, the service often seemed better. For instance, I flew Qantas Air Link frequently, and could not fault the service, even though the planes were increasingly shabby.

My loyalty to Qantas remained.

But not now. The constant news about the airline fills me with foreboding. Overall, the sacrifice of safety to boost the payout to Joyce will come back to haunt the Government. Joyce played the politicians with blarney and the mirror of exclusivity.

In return, I read Qantas has an ageing fleet of planes, not to be replaced because Boeing, the major supplier has also borrowed from the Joyce playbook, sacrificing safety for profits, epitomised by bits of their planes falling off or the controls being ungovernable.

Then get rid of your experienced, highly competent workforce as though there were no tomorrow. Nothing like having a disgruntled workforce or outsourcing critical areas where who knows the level of quality control. Then make sure you have no way of training and hiring a highly trained workforce – no succession planning except the top job.

The policy at present seems directed to induce artificial shortages; abandon air routes that are “not commercial”; increase the price of flying; maintain the monopoly by unfair if not illegal actions.

The resultant is a feeling of uncertainty. Yet there were no commercial airline crashes in 2023. One flight, Yeti Airlines 691, a turboprop ATR 72-500 stalled and crashed while landing at Pokhara in Nepal. All 72 people on board were killed. For some reason, it was not considered a commercial flight. ATR is a Franco-Italian aircraft manufacturer headquartered in Toulouse.

An air crash by a Qantas or Virgin flight where all are killed fortunately may be very unlikely – but is the government doing anything about confronting and minimising the rising risks, the result of compromising safety for assuring shareholder and Master Joyce’s profit?

The consequence of one disaster would be accompanied by public lamentations, pestering the relatives about the dead always portrayed as angels without fault, the repulsive sentence “we are taking the matter very seriously”, and politicians wedged in the exit doorway of the Chairman’s Lounges headed by the Prime Minister pushing son Nathan in his metaphorical pram of privilege. Then there are the endless Royal Commissions enriching lawyers and finally coming up with 500 recommendations, most of which will be ignored.

Plenty to do now I would have thought. Much cheaper and will assure safety before the fact.

Can Prostitution be Treason? Is it just a Reversible Equation?

A 2008 quote from President Donald Trump’s eldest son about his family’s assets.

“In terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. said at a New York real-estate conference that year. “Say, in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo, and anywhere in New York, we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Trump Jr.’s comment has taken on new meaning amid the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

America executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 for less. The Financial Times summarised the background in an article three years ago (sic). “There is now no doubt that Julius recruited Communist agents and passed information to the Russians, but recent evidence has proved that the always flimsy case against Ethel was based on nothing more substantial than personal prejudice, anti-Communist paranoia, and outright lies. On trial, essentially, were not her actions, but her political beliefs and reputation.

Ethel was pursued by the odious Ray Cohn, the aide to Senator McCarthy. Cohn later became a mentor to Trump. Cohn seemed to have sexual fantasies about Ethel Rosenberg, who at 35 years with two young boys, was executed on the order of President, Dwight D. Eisenhower for doing nothing more than being loyal to her husband, Julius, whose espionage amounted in the end to less than a row of proverbial beans. Certainly not enough to be put to death.

After all, parenthetically, is this the same America who want to put Julian Assange away for up to 175 years for telling the truth or if they could, judicially murder him; whilst letting that grub, Sam Bankman-Fried get only 25 years for stealing $8 billion from customers?

It seems so. A substantial number of Americans nod benignly towards Trump and his relationship with Putin, but then the Rosenbergs, whatever they were, did not deserve to die. I don’t think the Rosenbergs thumbed their noses at the American community as Trump has done, fomented by that metastatic Australian malignancy.

Mouse Whisper

Talking of the Orange, Trump won a couple of trophies at his own golf club this past fortnight. Rick Reilly, a golf journalist, in 2019 wrote a book about Trump’s golfing prowess entitled “Commander in Cheat”. 

“Trump doesn’t just cheat at golf,” Reilly wrote. “He throws it, boots it, and moves it. He lies about his lies. He fudges and foozles and fluffs. At Winged Foot, where Trump is a member, the caddies got so used to seeing him kick his ball back onto the fairway they came up with a nickname for him: ‘Pele’.”

Surprise, surprise. He is a no-show at projected pro-am tournament, where his booting skills would be very difficult to justify-unless he was classified as four-legged and had the stick in his mouth and named Niblick. Yuk!


Modest Expectations – Make Haste to Chiswick, Young Whyman

It is the winter of 1942. The streets of Melbourne are full of people in strange garb marching up and down the streets. Why, because the Japanese invasion is a hoax, they yell.  They want their freedoms back.  The so-called picture of Australian soldiers standing in the sun in Singapore was a film set, jigged to appear that they were Australian whereas if you looked closely, they all had native Indian faces. Signs such as “Hang John Curtin” dotted the crowd as well as “Curtains for Curtin”, “Freedom from Rationing”. “Free” is associated with anything, I want.

“When do I want it?” The howl goes up. “Now.” The roaring response. Bugger the community or the Commonweal. The Eureka flag is limp.

A procession in front of Parliament House. Meanwhile Western Australia has declared neutrality. Then out of the winter sun comes a squadron of Zeros, that lay waste the protesters in the street. At least 40 members of the crowd were dead, strafed in the first run.

Fanciful. To make a point – or reinforce a point. Defence is a Commonwealth power. Once the Commonweal has been defined, then Defence is a Commonwealth responsibility. Before Federation, the States raised their own militia. For instance, the NSW Volunteer Contingent was raised to fight in the Sudan with the British Forces. Shortlived, the contingent of 700 men constituting infantry, artillery and ambulance went there and back with barely a scratch, although there are always casualties from exotic diseases.

What is instructive was how confused was the treatment of Boer War veterans and also of sailors who experienced the Boxer Rebellion when they fought overseas during the transition of Australia, the sovereign States, to Australia, the Federation.

The main impact of the Boxer Rebellion on the nascent Australia is the presence of Chinese “souvenirs in the drawing rooms of NSW, Victoria and South Australia”. (Britain accepted 200 men from the Victorian Navy, 262 from the New South Wales Navy and the South Australian gunboat Protector with its complement of 96 officers and men.).

Defence is a no brainer. No Commonwealth would countenance each of the States having its own army. But this was a time when responsibility was confused; it was a time before 1914 when a far-off conflict offered an opportunity for a “boy’s own” adventure.

So why now has this Federal Government shoved the responsibility for Quarantine to the States when it is a clear Commonwealth power enshrined as much as Defence in the Australian Constitution. I have mentioned this matter before. It is the only original exclusive Commonwealth head of power directly related to health. As a result of Morrison’s decision (or should it more accurately be described as indecision) there are mixed messages, when the message should be simple.

Counter the pandemic as a whole-of-nation responsibility. What has happened over the period before the pandemic has been the advance in the sophistication of vaccine development against a suite of “chameleon” viruses for the previous 20 years when they had made tentative raids, only to peter out.

The problem is that the policy option of “masterly inactivity” or else the less flattering “wishing the problem will just go away” creates a vacuum. “Living with the Virus” is a more ambiguous definition of doing nothing. This shift in responsibility when it is done in such a manner is a recipe for chaos.

Hence, we have had all the jurisdictions reacting differently and often, especially in the early phase, commenting with a degree of hubris. “I have fewer cases than you … my system is better than yours” sentiment. Added to this then we had the witch’s cauldron of “experts” brewing up their own cures and policy potions.

At least much of this debate was directed to improving the response. This mixture of ideas and theories has unfortunately allowed the growth of treasonous comments in the name of “freedom”. The person who cries “freedom” while carrying a Trump Flag can be seen to be akin to that mythical 1942 scenario of denial and conspiracy, where the villain at the heart of the conspiracy is the government not the invader.

It stands to reason that when a country identifies a common enemy it is essential to have a common plan – not one with a series of different defences dependent on a local district whim. Just imagine a World War 11 cabinet with the current prime Minister, not John Curtin at his head. Here the prime policy would be to ensure that the ostrich feathers in the plumed hat would be of the finest quality rather than directed towards the conflict. Public relations put ahead of anything, concentrated on making the feathered leader look good; and using fashioning of the wedges of discontent to ensure that each wedge would divide any national response by childishly praising political allies for just that reason. Meanwhile the enemy advances.

The problem is that in any declared war situation, there is a limit to dissension.  Between pacifism and sedition? Is there a line drawn between them?

For me, protests are legitimate to a point. Now is a procession in 2019 decrying coal mining wandering through Queensland coal country similar to the recent procession wandering through Ballarat carrying the Eureka flags of rebellious gold miners of the 19th century?

In the first, the invective is coming from the bystanders; in the second, the invective is coming from within the procession. One can always discern the level of legitimacy by interpreting the legitimacy of the contents of the message of the banners being carried. The banners of the latter – those where the invective is coming from within – have been clearly of the latter variety.

Therefore, clearly there are insurrectionists loose in the country aping their counterparts in USA. The politicians are wary; they are not sure that they have convinced the population of the serious situation because, as with any aggression, the majority of the population wants freedom from the invader not the government. Hence the level of vaccination.

Only comparatively recently has government understood this. The initial picture was clouded by the quality of our original weapons. The problem with the early response to the Virus was the Federal government’s shirking of its responsibility allowed a serious public health matter to be reduced to party politics. With politicisation came a false legitimacy for all protests in the name of freedom, however defined, even though the invading force showed that it can manacle the state by closing borders and instilling fear and anxiety in the population. Western Australia has put itself in that situation, where there is only one way out.

However, despite all that, Australia has achieved a remarkable degree of vaccination; the population is now armed against the invader. This situation can be attributed to the fact that the strategic and tactical arms are now being led by a highly competent Chief Health Officer. One of the weakest links in the public health armoury has been given a vice-regal chariot to play round in, and the other State public health grandees have been suitably boxed.

Isolation is a solution to the acute situation where there is a new virus, but not when the situation becomes chronic and all the strategies have been rolled out. Therefore, there should be isolation facilities to match the requirement as best as possible. With almost two years of data, the preferred option for isolation yielding the most effective outcome should be clear, and not be reliant on the superficial excuse for a report that Jane Halton wrote. There is a need for a report that examines objectively how the various quarantine facilities have worked and also examines the effectiveness of shorter isolation periods and how that approach would be best managed.

The problem with the plan to open a community and the actual opening has dissonance, more related to community restlessness than a public health response, and the understandable but nevertheless important distinction between an acute and a chronic situation, especially when the various arms of government disagree, as continues to be the case in Australia.

As one voice has put it bluntly: “If we don’t develop systems to immunise the whole world in three months, instead of three years, we are not going to be successful against these kinds of pandemic threats.  Viruses adapt and they change, and unless we develop generalised global immunity more readily, we will always be faced with chasing our tail.”

More so if we tolerate sedition cloaked as freedom and continue to allow public health to be considered as some form of Fabian discourse covered with the sauces of alienation, angst and racist scapegoating.

I hate the word “summit”. Nevertheless, there is room to have collective reflection to determine what happens when omicron is followed by omega; and at the same time have a fringe festival run by somebody seriously zany such as members of the comedic diaspora mingling with those of the conspiracy “comedians” – a dangerous strategy but one where the truly comedic are mingled with the accidental form where the sinister meets the dextrous.

I have a feeling that if these fringe elements attract the vote of those unvaccinated, then perhaps after the elections the politicians will be emboldened to start assembling the charge sheets of these characters, and carefully read what constitutes “sedition” rather than some ephemeral apologia in the name of “free speech”. The scenario depicted in the preface could have occurred if Australia at that time had been submerged in public relations releases.

Things to Watch Over

The other day, the conversation turned to what are the places where you can sit and look out at the image in front of yourself, and never tire of it. I am one of those people, where sitting in an art gallery and contemplating one picture for a long time is not my “go”. Most museums just overwhelm anybody with their volume even though the eclectic nature of the contents often means that one can concentrate on a particular item or items.

This is different. It is the item that you want to sit and gaze at for as long as it takes to absorb the whole visual spectacle – it is where these works of humankind reached ex terra ad caelum.

The problem with many of the items is that the crowd is always moving past the object, or you do not have the time to linger. This was the dilemma of my first encounter with the Amber Room. This has been reconstructed in the Summer Palace outside St Petersburg. It was lost when the Germans removed it during the 872-day siege of the then Leningrad from 1942. However, the Summer Palace was outside the Siege perimeter and thus was captured. The Amber Room, as with many other artefacts, was looted by the kleptomaniac Nazis and transported away, and in the case of the Amber Room, never found.

The Amber Room

The Amber Room is a series of panels crafted from six tonnes of amber mounted on gold-leaf walls and adorned with mosaics and mirrors. It was a paean to the material’s beauty and status, originally a gift from Prussia to Russia in 1701. To the Russians’ credit, after World War 11 Leningrad, now returned to its former name of St Petersburg to commemorate Peter the Great’s contribution of turning a swampland into one of the most magnificent cities in the world, largely rebuilt the Summer Palace as it was.

Included in the reconstruction was the Amber Room. The reconstruction based on original images is a sight where the orange spectral range explodes into so many subsets of a solar flare. This is not surprising since Phaëton, the son of the Sun-God Helios, was permitted by his father to drive the Sun chariot. But he lost control, apparently sabotaged by Zeus, and plunged to earth. The short story, as I am not going to recount Ovid’s eye-witness account, as part of their particular “sorry business”, Phaëton’s sisters turned into poplar trees to forever weep golden tears of amber.

Amber is warm to the touch; amber has the property of being magnetised, which was demonstrated to me as a child. Amber is a biological residue of pine resin, resin which stopped flowing and entrapping the feasting insect for all time. The most valuable amber is that which tends to the red edge of the spectrum – the russet colours of autumn as distinct from the yellow of the caged canary. However, when the tableau of mirrors of gilded walls, and amber, amber everywhere, there is time to wonder – and then despite everything, you are moved on in a shuffling queue, despite attempts to linger.

My other visual feast is a place which has not changed for sixteen centuries. St Petersburg, despite a far shorter history, is full of multiple treasures, many of which have been restored by the Russian Government after World War 11. On the other hand, Ravenna, in central Italy, was the centre of the Western Roman Empire for most of the fifth and sixth centuries after Rome was sacked, when the emperor moved from Rome. The lines of succession were confused by the appearance of the Goths invading Spain (Visigoths) and Italy (Ostrogoths). Despite their thrashing the Roman army, it seems that they absorbed the trappings of Rome.

In Ravenna the Ostrogoths under Theodoric established their seat of government in the name of the Roman Empire. It was a somewhat confused line of succession especially as Theodoric was an Arian, a heretical branch of the mainstream Christianity, whose interpretation of a unitary God was at odds with both Orthodox and Western Christendom’s interpretation of the Trinity.

One of the many treasures of Ravenna is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the wife of the Emperor Honorius, who preceded the advent of the Goths. She was never buried there, but for a visitor from the 21st century sitting and gazing at the wonderful decoration of this burial chamber, I wondered why not. Such an explosion of starlight with seemingly the creator’s intention of merging terra and caelum, this burial chamber belies its small size. No superlative thought can adequately describe the sight when one is ushered through the narrow doorway into one of the four transepts centred under the Mausoleum’s dome.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

On the ceiling, the night sky is Ravenna blue, a colour unique in the same way the glass in Chartres Cathedral windows is known as Chartres Blue. Here in the Mausoleum, there is a shallow dome depicting a sky in this vivid blue mosaic with white and golden stars. A golden cross is placed at dome’s centre, signalling human redemption, through the Sacrifice on the Cross. The symbols of the four evangelists hover around the cross. This artist was no Arian.

I was supposed to move on after 10 minutes. I stayed for over an hour.

The images of day and night are so intensified in each of these places – one in amber; the another in glass mosaics. No wonder that lyrical genius, Cole Porter, was supposed to have written his song “Night and Day” after visiting the Mausoleum. What would he have written if he had also seen the Amber Room?

Omicron – What is in a Letter?

An appreciation of a recent Boston Globe wit which distils down why we have a WHO.

Perhaps that is bit harsh, but the naming rights for the Virus as it shifts its calling card through the bodies of humankind have raised a few wry smiles, even chuckles elsewhere. This I thought was the best ramble through the alphabetical jungle that I’ve read.

It’s probably safe to assume that classicists are as upset as the general population about the emergence of this latest threat.

But they, at least, can distract themselves with pronunciation debates. “I am not a technical ancient linguist,” the British celebrity historian Mary Beard tweeted: “But I do find it a bit odd that the BBC news is saying omicron with the stress on the first syllable.” Later in the Twitter thread, she revealed that she prefers the stress on the middle syllable — the “mic” part.

“I made a joke early on that we didn’t want to get to ‘Theta’,” One classicist professor joked.

Theta — the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet — is short for Thanatos, in Greek mythology the personification of death. “I might have tweeted about it,” the professor allowed.

Then he started riffing about upcoming alphabet-related naming challenges.

The next letter up, he noted, is Pi. “Do we want to go after geometry?” he asked, quickly moving on to the letter Rho, which would be tricky because “some people will want to trill it,” and as for Sigma, it takes so many written forms that it, too, could be a challenge.

“There’s madness all the way down,” he said cheerfully.

For people not following the lesser dramas of the World Health Organization,(WHO) it might come as a surprise to learn that the decision to identify the variants with Greek letters was not a simple administrative matter, but in fact decided upon after “wide consultation” and a review of “many potential naming systems,” according to a May 2021 announcement.

“WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities.”

WHO turned to the Greek alphabet to make the names easy to say and remember, and to get away from geographic stigma and discrimination.

But of course, nothing is simple. Considering that the most recent named variant before Omicron was Mu, the letter Nu should have been next, followed by Xi, and then Omicron.

But there was no Nu because it sounds like “new,” naming experts feared we’d end up in some crazy “Who’s On First? Type” situation:

“What’s the new variant called?”

” Nu.”

“That’s what I’m asking — what’s the new one called?”


Using the letter Xi would probably have landed the WHO squarely in the fraught situation it was trying to avoid by using Greek letters in the first place. Not only is it a common last name, it’s the name of China’s president, Xi Jinping.

So Omicron it was. But Omicron feels sketchy. How come no one had ever heard of it before? Maybe it’s one of those Clinton-Kamala Harris-Nancy Pelosi-Anthony Fauci-Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Lame Stream Media hoaxes.

The meme machine has been cranking overtime, likening Omicron to an evil Transformer villain (sample Tweet: “He will do whatever is necessary to further the Decepticon’s conquest of the Universe, even if it costs him personal harm.”)

The name sounds like a drug in heavy advertisement rotation on cable news: “Ask your doctor about Omicron (warning: Omicron may cause death and despair).” Or maybe a minor cryptocurrency (oh, wait, it is one, and of course its value briefly soared).

From an educational perspective, Omicron is giving people a skewed idea of the Greek alphabet. As far as many people know, Omicron comes right after the last variant to get a lot of attention, which was Delta.

“Someone said this is the worst way to teach the public the Greek alphabet,” said David Goldstein, an associate professor of linguistics, Indo-European studies, and classics at UCLA.

But at the rate things are going, this isn’t even a problem we’ll have for that much longer. The Greek alphabet has 24 letters, and we’ve already blown our way to number 15.

In June, the journal Nature urged WHO to get ahead of the name game and “consider alphabets from other languages” to have at the ready. “The WHO system’s authors will be aware that theirs is a temporary solution,” the journal intoned.

But alphabets are finite and this pandemic is endless. We need an ever-replenishing source of monikers. Disgraced public officials, maybe?

Swedish Winter

Accompanying a photo which came the other day from Sweden was the following message:

Black ice such as this is a “fairly rare” occurrence. Necessary conditions include the Greenland blockage, high pressure, rapid drop in temperature and no wind. The result is magic ice as though looking through glass and which provides extremely smooth skating. Our local mare is very reliable in providing solid ice but often not as smooth as this. Hopefully the incoming snowstorm will bypass us so that we can skate for some weeks to come (on the same magic ice).

Now here in Australia in winter we curse black ice, because it cannot be seen on a bitumen tarmac, especially in the early morning, when driving on it. A real hazard, unless you are skating on the local lake

But in Sweden, black ice is a boon as my Swedish correspondent has told me. The “Greenland blockage” was an unfamiliar term to a non-weather person such as myself. Apparently, it is the result of a high-pressure zone over Greenland, often referred to as a “blocking” pattern because it slows the flow of weather systems circulating around the Northern Hemisphere. When present, weather extremes can affect the same areas for extended periods.

Scientists evaluate the presence of a Greenland block and its intensity and duration through an index known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). A negative NAO is often an indicator of a Greenland block. A positive NAO signals low pressure over Greenland and generally less extreme weather over the Northern Hemisphere continents. So, there it is, Greenland blocked – despite what was said above it seems it has enabled a Swedish upside.

The only question “mare” – not a female horse; not Swedish for lake; or not a Latin “sea”. May be just a “mere” mistake.  I am thus not sure.

Mouse Whisper

This item is taken from a 15 year old issue of New Scientist. Apparently a letter arrived from a bank addressed to this woman, which she described as a self-contained communication with no further information required.

Except…on the back of the sheet was written: “This page is left blank deliberately.”

Subtle but self-falsifying proposition? Anything really changed?