On my recent overnight flight from China to Australia, I found myself seated in a row of four with two seats free and a woman at the other end of the row. Dinner was eaten, a movie watched and then each of us sttempted to get comfortable for the night. We tried to stretch out on two seats each, without much success. So I suggested she stretch out her legs and lie against the seat backs and I would stretch out in reverse and lie down in the remaining space. So we were able to lie down at full stretch, heads at either end of the row of four seats. I found a pair of smelly socks close to my nose, my consolation being that my socks were even more aromatic beside her nose. But I soon fell asleep. Some hours later I woke to find my hand resting on her somewhat ample thigh. I sheepishly removed it and smiled a good morning.

I was not quite sure what to expect: a slap or a kiss good morning. Instead, she was keen to talk and asked me what I did. I mentioned writing on Marxism and religion, researching in Australia and teaching in China, my children, travel etc. She, it turned out, was the head of a major company, married and with a brood of children. To top it off, she was a fundamentalist Christian who had found the command to obey her husband immensely helpful – she told me with Bible in hand. She was used to calling all the shots, so it was a relief to be able to let him do so some of the time. So on we chatted until the plane landed. But neither of us mentioned my wandering hand or her thigh. At least it broke the ice.

Quirky signs with unwitting senses – part of the pleasure of travel in distant places.


This is the name of a well endowed cafe at Leipzig railway station. Not to be outdone, the ship from Riga to Stockholm sports a somewhat different culinary experience:


But my favourite is this one, on the old train from Minsk to Riga:


It took me a moment to realise that there is no red line through the lit cigarette, for in the vestibule at the end of each carriage you can indeed smoke. How civilised!

Nudism was a particularly strong feature of the USSR, as also in East Germany. Lenin was, of course, a nudist, along with Krupskaya and many of the Bolsheviks. But what about Stalin? I have yet to find out more information on that one, but he is a long-term resident of Fox Bay nudist beach in the Crimea:

Stalin at nudist beach Crimea


More information on the range of natural places in Crimea may be found here.

(ht sk)

This question arose during a recent, brief stay in hospital. I had my third bout of atrial fibrillation in the last 17 years and went to emergency. They pumped me full of various drugs for the next 24 hours – flecainide, metropol, and amiodarone. None of them made much difference (good to know next time), so they zapped me with a low voltage electric shock the following day and I reverted to regular sinus rhythm immediately. I already knew this, since the shock had the same result five years ago.

So what has all this to do with a cause or its absence? I found last time, in 2007, that everyone is a cardiac specialist, keen to find causes. It’s due to stress, said one. You have a weak heart, said another. Too much exercise, said a third. Perhaps your heart is too big … and on they went. And I too sought for causes. In my discussions with my cardiologist at that time, I suggested excess coffee in the past, heavy smoking, periods of lack of sleep, inheritance … On each occasion, he simply shook his head.

‘There’s no cause in your case.’ He said. ‘You’re a lone fibrillator.’

To explain. There are three causes: heart disease, heart surgery, hyper-thyroidism (Graves Disease). I have none of those. The following data also applies:

Blood pressure: 95/65

Pulse: 46

Calcification: zero

Cholesterol: normal (i.e. nothing bad)

In other words, I have a “strong and healthy” heart, as they said at the hospital. All of this means that the atrial fibrillation is not particularly dangerous for me, although when older (70 plus) the risk of a blood clot in the heart does rise.

Of course, given the well nigh inescapable philosophical and scientific horizon within which we operate, there must be a cause for everything. So if I say there is no cause (as I do), the stock reply is, ‘not yet.’ Or, ‘are you a religious nut?’ But what if there is really isn’t a cause for some things? They just happen despite all the evidence that they shouldn’t. In this situation, that seems to be the case. My cardiologist sure thinks so.

The other day as I was out at the shops, I was pondering my chapter in Idols of Nations called ‘Adam Smith the Story-Teller’. But I needed a piss, so to the toilets near the shops I went. Minding my own ‘business’ and deep in thought, I completed the required task and made to leave. As I did so, the door in the cubicle before me creaked open to reveal a somewhat hairy man with his pants around his ankles. One hand was busily at work upon a very visible ‘hand’ while the other raised a finger and beckoned to me invitingly. A lop-sided grin on the man’s face completed the picture. I can say that it was not enough to entice me to join him. Even though the image remains etched on my brain, I must have been there for a nano-second, for before I knew I was out and in the shops, telling Christina with a laugh. The thing is, he was a dead-ringer for this guy:


Probably the most abused slogan from Adam Smith is his “invisible hand.” Even though it appears only three times in his writings, it has made more than one economist drool and not a few theologians see divine traces. First, the appearances: in his lectures on astronomy, he mentions the “invisible hand of Jupiter’, and then he casually drops a reference once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and again in Wealth of Nations. In the former, as the rich engage in their natural selfishness and rapacity,

They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have made, had the earth been divided into equal proportions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. (IV.1.10)

We should all be thankful for the rapacious rich! And then, in possibly the most quoted section from Wealth of Nations:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestick industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the publick interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestick to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other eases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (IV.iii.9)

The phrase has become rubbed and worn by passing through too many hands. Many have extracted the invisible hand from the particular concern of this passage with domestic industry and extended it to become an image of how the possessive individualism of capitalism works to spread capitalism as a whole.

Apart from all the usual dross on this well-worn member, I would like to suggest another dimension. In the Hebrew Bible, yad or hand is occasionally used as a euphemism for penis. For instance, in the Song of Songs 5:4, one of the lovers is said to put his “hand” to the hole. Further, in the sexual text of Isaiah 57:8 we find literally “you have looked on a hand,” and in Lamentations 1:10 the adversary puts his hand on “all her precious things.” Given the masculine propensities of the mighty hand of God in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 32:11; Deuteronomy 4:34; and so on); given that Smith is not averse to an occasional biblical allusion; and given his unremittingly masculine concerns, especially of males of ruling class propensities, I would suggest that the invisible or hidden hand may well be a subconscious allusion to that member concealed in his pants.

Walking along the streets in Yan’an, in northern Shaanxi Province, we heard this song blaring out in the centre of town:

Yes, it was musak, or piped music, providing us all with a tranquil atmosphere on a lovely summer’s day in the mountains.  I guess it helps if only two people in town can understand the lyrics. I’m told it’s been voted the most obscene song ever made.

The Germans may have their Würste, in all manner of intriguing formations, as I have noted earlier. But on one thing at least the Danes comprehensively beat the Germans – in the grossness of their sausages. To wit:

IMG_1328 (2)a

They call this a Fransk Hotdog, but it looks more like a dog’s dick. Note the ring of mayonnaise at the base.

Even more inventive is:


Correct me if I am wrong, but that bun looks remarkably like a pair of bum cheeks.

P.S. Given the popularity of these items and given the obvious fact that they are decidedly bad for you, I am struggling to see how the infamous homo economicus fits into this picture. Isn’t he supposed to determine, rationally, what is to his own benefit?

We don’t seem to know, for, as Marc van de Mieroop points out: ‘ Archaeological evidence of latrines in houses is lacking, and public toilets do not seem to hаvе existed either’ (The Ancient Mesopotamian City, p. 159). Out in the village-communes that would not have been a great problem, but in what are often called ‘cities’, it was a different matter entirely. In the rivers and canals? But that was also drinking water.

One of my arguments in The Sacred Economy, at least in the chapter called ‘On Fluid Bodies: Clans, Households, and Patrons,’ is that the ancient Near Eastern clan included both human beings and domestic animals in a continuum. I base this on the ‘bestiality’ laws, which assume such continuity, since they appear within the framework of what are called ‘incest’ laws. ‘Incest’ here includes both blood and non-blood human relations, as well as your expected sheep, goat, cow, pig, and dog.

Some more evidence has come to light, from the method of recording in the late Uruk period (late fourth millennium). There, clay tablets  list rural and estate labourers, distinguishing between male and female, age groups (children are ‘womb-sucklers’), and their groupings. The curious thing is that exactly the same method is used for recording animals, down to the common term for ‘herd’.

Late Uruka

So where were the boundaries? A stronger one was between ruling class human beings and those who tilled the soil and herded the sheep and goats. But the most noticeable boundary was between wild animals and domesticated animals-humans. The clan certainly did not include those wild types, unpredictable as they were and outside the bounds of what counted as part of the tribe.

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